Know your enemy, my son.
Respect his skill; admire his cunning.
For the Dragon was built
-From the Book of St. Albans-
In the Beginning . . . . .
They hung in the clear blue winter’s sky like two glistening jewels. Two dragons. One a Winged Beastie, her giant bat-wings stretched out to the fullest, riding the thermal drafts of the rugged forest hills like some dreaded Dark Lord. Her wingspan was a good fifty feet. Her body, a charcoal gray color, with its long serpentine neck and equally long horned tail delicately balancing her in her flight, sat in the sky as if she was a natural part of it. She was a fire-breather. An old warrior. Supremely confident and master of the skies.
Her rider, strapped in the heavy saddle just in front of the Beastie’s forward shoulders, had wrapped himself in a heavy cloak to keep the biting cold at bay. The air was frigid cold. Winter’s harsh grip had taken hold of the land and would not let go for another six months. Snuggled close to his body was the heavy looking crossbow so favored by King Dragons. A weapon of immense power and range and very deadly in the hands of a marksman. And something else was held close to him underneath the cloak. Something important.
So important it required him to keep his crossbow strung and notched.
Two dragons riding the empty winds in maleficent grandeur. Terrible to behold.
Harbingers of Destiny.
Once a Bretan warrior-monk and accomplished wizard, now condemned and hunted by my brothers and all humanity, I rode in the saddle of my fierce Cedric high above and behind the unsuspecting Dragons. Cedric was a Huygens-bred Great Wing. A beast much resembling the smaller, but equally dangerous, Ferril Hawks which populates the forests and mountains of the High Kanris. But bigger, much bigger, and far more deadly. A powerful bird. Capable of carrying me and my weapons of war high into the skies to hunt Winged Beasties and their masters.
This was my Cedric. One does not own a Great Wing. Neither bird nor man is the other’s master. To fight the ravages of the Dragon, man and bird must unite in a common cause. They must blend into a well honed weapon with one partner knowing what the other will do in the heat of battle even before the other knows himself. Cedric and I had fought the dragon for decades. We knew each other’s soul as if it was our own.
Neither of us could believe a Winged Beastie and King Dragon rode the cold blue skies of the Northern Hill Country. Yet there they were. Both radiating from their souls a sense of boredom and being lost at the same time. I sensed their half-hearted attempts to search the forests below for something they expected to find. They were on a mission. They were lost yet they were near to where they should be. Given time they would find what they sought. They would deliver the dispatches the dragon clansman clutched beneath his cloak tightly to his chest.
It was not that we were surprised in finding dragons. Dragon clans possessed baronies in the North Country. The Malawei, the Bruinii, and not too far in the west, along with the Marouth. Malawei and Bruinii were near. Small clans hardly large enough to keep the lands they had carved out of the enclaves of human kingdoms surrounding them as their own. Yet they too would have been an oddity to have one of its fabled fire-breathers riding alone in the clear skies here and now.
But this clansman was neither Malawei nor Bruinii. This clansman was dressed in red and trimmed in black was Hartooth. The First Clan. A warrior of the fabled clan who first rose out of the swamps of the Far South. A warrior far from home. Far from the skies and forests he would be familiar with. A creature who was decidedly out of his environment. Yet more importantly these Dragons were enemies. The rider was a warrior of a legendary clan. Legendary in their intense hatred for all of things human. Wherever a Hartooth appeared, so too appeared death and destruction. He was, for me, even as an outcast Bretan warrior-monk, my sworn enemy.
There was but one option for my feathered comrade and I to take. We had to destroy the Hartooth courier and his fire-breathing companion. We had to find out why a warrior of his clan was so far north. It was imperative we snatch from his dead or dying body the messages he held so close to him and ascertain the real threat he represented.
Reaching for my bow I quickly pulled it from its leather pouch strapped to my saddle and strung it. Notching arrow to the string I said nothing, made no movement to signal my comrade, nor had to. We were a team. A well oiled machine. The moment his sharp sense of hearing heard me string the bow he waited long enough for me to notch arrow to the string. And then, in the blinking of an eye, he folded his wide but powerful wings and threw his beaked head down. We, like a massive stone, dropped from out of the skies in a steep dive. The cold winter air flew past my face at an incredible speed. I felt my face grow numb and the sense of touch in my hands begin to disappear. But this did no matter. Our enemies were rapidly approaching and our goals were simple. Destroy both dragons and allow neither to escape.
When it appeared we were about to crash into Dragon and fire-breather I sat up in my saddle, lifted the bow and pulled the string back to my ear before releasing the arrow. It was a swift, sure, and practiced move. One I had done a thousand times or more in my life. The arrow flew from the bow straight and true. It hit in the middle of the unsuspecting warrior’s back with such force it threw the warrior forward and actually penned the creature into the neck of his comrade. The fire-breather lifted its head and screeched in pain as it started to turn and look behind and above him.
Too late! The Winged Beastie had no chance to dart away. With talons extended my giant comrade and I slammed into the fire-breather’s neck with a horrendous jolt. The collision almost ripped me out of the stout leather straps holding me into my saddle. Cedric’s talons gripped the Beastie’s neck into a death grip and we, Dragons and all, began plummeting to earth in a spiraling Dance of Death.
The fire-breather tried to twist out of my Great Wing’s grip. A stream of blue-white flame roared from the Beastie’s mouth as it tried to turn its head and engulf us in his fiery fury. The roar of the flame, the heat of the fire, and the smell of burning sulfur almost saved him. Close came his final blow to I and my faithful comrade. But Cedric’s grip was too strong. The Beastie could not turn his head far enough to hit to dislodge his tormentors.
Onward we plummeted to the ground below. I felt the life draining from the fire-breather and from the Hartooth. And then, only few hundred feet above the snow covered forest below us, the fire-breather expired and Cedric released his grip and twisted away at the same time. Hartooth rider and his Beastie crashed into the a small clearing with a thunderous finality. A dark cloud of snow and soil was thrown up into the air and momentarily hid our enemies from view. But we circled and waited, bow notched again with arrow, and both of us anticipating anything from below. But there was no need. The cloud of snow gently blew away. Below us our prey lay in a jumbled heap of broken bones and splayed limbs.
Cedric landed in the clearing some distance away from our fallen quarry and in a position which, if the fire-breather was still alive and wished to again use his hot breath against us, would be difficult for him to do so. I leapt from my saddle after unstringing bow and replacing it in its quiver. From my side I withdrew the curved blade of a Dragon scimitar and gripped it firmly as I approached the mass of flesh before me. No life force could be felt within the stilled heart of the fire-breather. But the Hartooth clansman was, for the moment, alive. His life force was draining from his soul rapidly. He had only moments left in this world before journeying over into the Netherworld. He, still strapped to his saddle, had been ripped away from his companion and lay to one side of the dead Beastie. As I stepped around the dying creature to face him I heard the clansman snort out of rattling chuckle of amusement as our eyes met for the first time.
“Ah! I travel to the Dark World thanks to the deadly aim of a Bretan priest. So be it. I go honorably. As it should be. We were destined to meet, human. Our destinies were set long ago. My life ends and yours continues on for a little time more.”
He coughed, blood trickling down his lips. From out of his chest the shaft of my arrow was visible. He held one hand to his chest and coughed again. And again chuckled in amusement.
“Destiny, our destines, human, are set in stone. It is the destiny of the Hartooth to rid this planet of all your kind. It is the destiny of all of your kind to accept your extinction.”
I nodded, frowning.
“What if I do not believe in destiny, warrior? What then?”
“Ha! Believe or not. It does not matter.”
He tried to laugh but had no strength as his life force deserted his physical form.
Using the tip of my sword I reached forward and slid part of his red cloak to one side. Lifting the heavy leather courier’s satchel from his body I cut the straps holding it to him. Picking the satchel up with the tip of my blade I stepped away from the dead and moved back to a position close to my comrade. A quick perusal of the dispatches made me frown even more. The Hartooth were coming. They were coming in force.
Destiny. Our destines sat long ago. Set in stone forever and incapable of changing.
Did I believe that? Was it true? Was it the destiny of mankind to be eradicated from this world by the Hartooth? Was it meaningless to resist?
And to think the Great Jihad, the Final War, began eight years ago with the birth of a Dragon child.
The worlds of the Dragon and of Man shook and shuddered from the terrible conflict. This maleficent conflagration consumed the innocent and the valiant like some uncontrolled forest fire. There was no way for anyone to escape it unscathed. There was no place to hide. Like a disease this war grew ever larger, absorbed more riches and natural resources, while conversely increasing the grim migration of souls into the farther reaches of the Netherworld.
Even the heavens and the Netherworld roared with the cacophony of battle. The gods of Man and the grim Dark Lords of the Dragon, ancestral and immortal enemies since the beginning of time, chose now to come down from the heavens or rise out of the nebulous veils of the Netherworld and partake in the blood letting.
I, a simple warrior-monk of the Bretan, knew my duty.
Warrior. Monk. Wizard.
Trained since childhood to fight the battles for when the weak, the innocent, the hapless could not. Trained to seek out Evil in all its forms and confront it; to make war on it and to drive it back into the abyss. We in the Bretan worship one god. It is our belief that Shin’zin is everywhere. He is everything. Both the animate and the inanimate contain a part of Shin’zin. But more importantly, we believed Shin’zin comes in the disguise of a thousand different gods. He is called his name in a thousand different ways. He shapes his visage so he will be recognized by those who plead for his help. He is the Giver of Light and Life. He is the Healer of All Wounds. Beneficent. Humble. But ever vigilant. Evil comes in many shapes and forms. Evil comes with the murderous roar of the Lion or with the tender caress of an apparent loving mother. Evil relishes its disguises and gloats on its accomplishments in deceiving those who plead for mercy.
Evil must be confronted. A warrior-monk-wizard of the Bretan does not hesitate.
Nor did I.
It all began a year and a half earlier. In the monastery of St. Rolla I felt a great stirring of Evil. I felt it stirring like a deadly snow-viper does just underneath a fresh blanket of snow and moments before it strikes. An Evil of immense proportions which dwelt only in the twilight between the conscience and the unconscious. An Evil powerful enough to reach out and control the destines of Man and Dragon. And possibly even the Currents of Time found in the Netherworld.
This feeling came to me in the early hours before dawn while a blizzard with howling winds and blinding snows made the walls of the monastery grown and creak. The last throes of Winter were screaming in their rage and Spring was about to return and thaw the earth. Spring. A time of hope. Renewal. Rebirth. But on that night, and in my Mind’s Eye, I felt as if death itself was stalking the land.
Wizards have an ability called the Inner Eye. It is a added sense which makes us ‘see’ the auras of living things around us. All living forms have both a generic and specific aura. A generic aura would be describing what Evil looks like. It is a dimly glowing mass of blues and blacks. The colors move and change shape, they either brighten or dim, depending on the mood of the Evil and whether it moves or whether it has found a prey and stalks it silently. On this night I felt a great stirring of Evil. It washed over my soul like a sudden onslaught of frigid arctic air. And it came from the East.
Rising at sunrise to begin my training anew, word came to St. Rolla that the Clan Anktooth and their lands were being overrun by an ancient and deadly foe. The Anktooth, an old and honored Dragon clan we of the Bretan were long familiar with, both as a friend and as a foe, were facing a foe many times their size in numbers and far more wealthy—and far more proficient in making war. We of the faith sent spies toward the Anktooth’s lands to seek additional information. On their return the news cemented our fears a terrible event was taking place.
The First Clan was again waging war on a grand scale. They were swallowing up lands and baronies in a wide swath and were now trying to devour the Anktooth. The Hartooth, in Dragon legends one of the first four Dragon clans to rise out of the swamps and stand on two legs, carried with it the Dragon prophecy of being humanity’s nemesis. They again blew the horns of war and brought fire and sword down upon their enemies. Slowly and methodically in their terrible martial splendor they were marching toward the High Kanris.
A year ago I decided to mount my magnificent Huygens bred Great Wing and ride the winds toward the lands of the Anktooth. Normally Dragon and Man warred against each other. Yet, of late, there had been instances where individuals have come to the aid of their once ancestral enemies. I knew the Anktooth. I knew them to be honorable. I knew they wished to forge some kind of cessation of hostilities with Mankind and to begin a lucrative, and mutual, series of trade agreements with the kingdoms close to their borders.
I knew they would accept my offer of assistance.
To my surprise others came as well. Niscian riders, Hurlian bowmen, and an assortment of mercenary warriors. All human. All united in their desire to confront the Hartooth and defeat them in battle. For a little over a year the combined arms of human and Anktooth fought the might and wealth of the Hartooth. Perhaps a hundred or so Great Wing riders from the High Kanris came down from their snow capped peaks and joined us. For a year I led this group of Great Wings, rising into the air over the battlements of the city to confront the flame-breathing Winged Beasties and their riders of the enemy.
It was a valiant fight. A war which songs of mighty deeds, from all sides, no doubt were composed. But heroic deeds of individuals cannot win a war. With out wealth war cannot be fought for long durations. The Hartooth had warriors as heroic and as brave as any Anktooth or human. Yet the numbers of the Hartooth seemed to never dwindle. When a Hartooth fell three would rise up to fill the gaps in the battle line. That could mean only one thing. Gold.
A vast reservoir of gold seemingly limitless in size and spent lavishly for men, arms, material and the other accouterments of war. The Hartooth’s wealth seemed like an endless ocean. Everyday from the battlements we would see new formations arriving to join the ranks arrayed before us. Everyday, as our numbers dwindled and weakened from constant battle, we faced fresh enemies eager to join the fray. My hundred riders dwindled with each passing day. We would litter the skies with the falling bodies of our foes still strapped to the saddles of the dead Winged Beasties. But at night, when we had fought our last aerial sortie, I would count those who returned and my heart would grow heavy.
Wealth is the engine of war, Pilgrim. Without it no barony, no kingdom, no rarified and Noble Cause can sustain itself for long. The Anktooth were not a wealthy clan. They did not possess gold or silver mines. Their wealth came from commerce. Trade and commerce was quickly decapitated from the Anktooth the moment the Hartooth arrived.
The end came soon enough. And the journey I now struggle to complete began.
In the dying hours of the final assault on the city of Anhk, the last city belonging to the Anktooth, I was pulled from the fight by the taciturn presence of a Mauk Clan warrior loyal to the old Anktooth baron. The Clan Mauk had been loyal followers and servants of the Anktooth for generations. Related to the Anktooth, the Mauk knew they faced the same threat as the Anktooth did from the Hartooth. Resisting a First Clan meant, if they lost, extinction. The Anktooth were losing. Only a matter of hours were left in their existence. Before the rise of the next sun not one, but two, ancient and honorable Dragon clans would no longer walk the earth.
I was quickly led to a place where the old Anktooth baron stood with a group of other warriors, Dragon and human mercenaries, along with a few of his own warriors, accompanied the old baron. There was a child there as well. A female Dragon child of seven years. Shaking with terror. Her heart filled with anguish and pain. Clinging to the leg of her grandfather, the old baron, with the intensity only the desperate can achieve.
But she was, Pilgrim, more than just a Dragon child. More than just the last of the royal blood to the Anktooth. She was, in truth, far more important than that. She was a legendary Pearl Princess. The last of the five promised to Dragonkind through prophecy.
The Fifth Sister.
The one promised to rise up and unite all of Dragonkind. The promised prophet destined by the Dragon gods to be the salvation of the Dragon. Once united she would lead the Dragon in the Final War against humanity.
Evil incarnate. A witch who, as the four before her were, was endowed with incredible powers to control the Netherworld. She would master the Netherworld. She would be able to tap into that vast and limitless dynamo of raw supernatural power and mold it to her will in whatever she desired. No human wizard, if she grew to adulthood and acquired all her power, would be able to defeat her. No collected mass of wizards combining their powers would be able to thwart her plans. Humanity would be lost. Destroyed. Wiped from the face of the earth if this Pearl Princess was allowed to live.
Being a Bretan warrior-monk, and wizard of the First Order, I was sworn to protect humanity from the ravages of the Dragon. But more importantly my vows compelled me to seek out and destroy Evil whenever and wherever I could find it. Now Evil stood directly in front of me. In the presence of a seven year old child. A frightened and confused child clinging to her grandfather.
“You are to take her, warrior. You and your fabulous Great Wing are to ride high into the mountains beyond. Hide her, Roland of the High Crags. Hide her and protect her . . . “
A Dragon baron asking a Betan warrior-wizard to save and protect the abomination called a Pearl Princess. A Dragon asking me to defy my humanity and protect the one creature who would acquire the power to eradicate humanity from existence. To defy my religious vows. To become, if I accepted the quest, a Malus Apostate, the most horrendous of all heretical banishment decrees a wizard could acquire from his religious order. To be hunted like an animal. To be shown no mercy. To suffer the agonized and miseries within the Netherworld for the rest of eternity.
If I accepted the quest. If I chose to condemn my kind to damnation.
If . . .
I gazed into the child’s soul. I felt her pain. I felt her terror. I glimpsed the edges of her already astonishing powers of the Netherworld. She made no effort to hide or disguise her soul from me even though she knew I was examining her closely.
I saw the potential in her. The potential for both Evil and Good. But there was something else I detected. She glowed with an aura of a child’s innocence. There was no Evil present. They were no hidden veils which might possibly mask Evil. She was as she appeared to be. An innocent child on the verge of being cruelly executed by a hostile and unforgiving world. No one was strong enough to protect her. No one felt any tenderness toward her, except that of her grandfather and the old Clan Mauk warrior who led me to her standing beside me. To the mercenaries who tried to convince the old baron they were better choices in saving the child’s life I could feel nothing but greed and hatred for the child.
She was alone in the world. Alone, confused, and defenseless. Yes . . . already she could command immense powers within the Netherworld. But she was without training. She knew not what she could do with these powers. Left alone and unchecked she would become a danger to all life on the planet. If she fell into the hands of her father, the Hartooth baron, she would become the trained weapon of Dragon prophecy.
But . . .
Two thoughts crossed my mind immediately the moment I looked into her soul. First, being the warrior-wizard of the Bretan as I was I could not kill an innocent child. All my religious training in the Bretan Way screamed against such an act. The Bretan was supposed to defend and protect the old, the weak, the innocent, and the young. The child was devoid of all evil. She was but a seven year old child. To extinguish her life with the flick of wrist, much like that of someone pinching the burning flame of a candle into oblivion, would be an evil act in itself.
At the same time a revelation came to me. Suddenly, before my eyes like a blinding flash of intense light, opened the possibility of defying prophecy! By taking the child into my protection and teaching her the tricks and techniques the Bretan used to control both the power and the potential madness found in the Netherworld, might I mold the weapon which would destroy Dragon prophecy? A Dragon weapon forged by the Dragon gods themselves used to destroy the very ones who created it! Struck breathless I saw all the potential dilemmas and the potential rewards this possibility offered.
If prophecy could be destroyed, might it be possible for Dragon and Man to finally learn how to live together in peace? Was it mandatory that one species or the other had to be wiped clean from the face of the planet in order to obtain peace? To finally remove the bleak and terrible fury of the Dark Lords from the hearts of the Dragon was a vision none before thought possible. But here was a chance–an admittedly dismally slim chance–of doing just that!
Defy my religious vows. Defy my gods. Defy all of humanity and Dragonkind together in order to achieve something beyond comprehension. Peace. Wonderful, lasting, so long sought after Peace.
I agreed to the Anktooth’s request. I agreed to protect the child and teach her the Bretan Way. I knew what dangers this could mean to all. I knew Evil, if it ever entered the child’s heart, would know how to thwart all the techniques the Bretan knew in controlling the Netherworld.
I knew I would be condemned by all. I knew I would be hunted, along with the child, and promised a most horrible end. I knew my fate. Yet I agreed to defy it. Within an hour we fled from the dying city of Anhk. We flew high into the towering peaks of a mountain pass which led up into the High Kanris. We, the child and I, began our quest for either achieving the unreachable crown called Peace. Or die trying.
Only the Fates knew how our journey would end.