Doubt everything you hear,
Reserve judgment on everything
Which your eyes see.
The World is not as it appears to be;
Everything is in shades of gray.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
The crackling of electricity. A burst of raw energy! A blinding flash of light!
We had arrived.
The raw smell of an ancient swamp almost overwhelmed our senses. The heat and humid of this twilight hell, along with the aromas of rotting vegetation and the putrid odors of rotting flesh, assaulted our senses with a powerful intensity. Sweat began to run down our foreheads and cheeks in a flood of perspiration. The humidity, so heavy clinging to our flesh, made it almost impossible to breath. The mist surrounding us was thick enough to hide everything from view.
“Humph!” snorted the Mauk beside me in disgust. “I do not like this place, Bretan. It smells of death.”
Swamp water, almost hot to the touch and black as coal, came up to our ankles. In the gray mist we began hearing the strange and odd sounds of the swamp’s denizens. Ferns, moss hanging from gnarled and twisted tree limbs, long since dead, closed in around us. Large creatures churned water off to our left while above I caught glimpses of odd looking flying creatures about the size of large bats flashing through the mist.
“Where are we, child?” the abbot’s voice whispered,
“The Swamps of the First Clan,” Ursala’s calm voice answered lightly, almost musically.
I knew where we were. We were actually in the Netherworld. We were neither in the realty of life called the Outer Realms, where the abbot and I lived and fought, nor were we really in any true reality or dimension at all. The Netherworld was neither here nor there. It existed, yet it was nonexistent. It was a place where the souls of the dead went after they left their normal existence. Where ever that may have been. It was a place where Time and Realty and multiple dimensions all converged.
It was the source of all Power and Goodness and Evil. From here in the Netherworld all wizards, warlocks, and witches tapped into their power. In here was the Thread of Insanity called out and tried to seduce those who were born to wield magical powers. A dangerous place this Netherworld. Filled with as many Delights as there were Terrors. No place for a wizard such as I to dwell too long in. Certainly no place for a simple Niscian abbot who did not possess the ‘gift of the blood.’ The powers that made a wizard a wizard.
Yet here we were. Brought here by an eight year old Dragon child and the last of the Pearl Princesses for what purposes I knew not. I decided to remain silent and hear the words of the child beside me.
“Why are we here, child?” the Niscian abbot asked, his voice beginning to fill with a sense of wonder as he turned clockwise very slowly around and stared at the strangeness which surrounded us.
“You must meet someone and listen to what she has to say. It is very important. For all of us.”
“Who wishes to talk to us?”
“Me,” the child answered calmly.
The abbot and the paladin turned to stare at the child.
I closed my eyes and almost groaned in despair. Yes. It was as I suspected. The child brought us into the Netherworld to show the Reverend Father her formidable powers. And to possibly persuade him to join our cause. But in order to do this she would have to summon up herself; a different version of the same creature who lived in a different Time and in a different Dimension. It was a masterful display of Netherworld power and finesse. A feat no other had no other wizard or witch had ever tried before. Yet she had with ease. Incredibly dangerous for a wizard to attempt. In fact, for many wizards, it was forbidden even to contemplate such a feat. Meeting one’s self from either out of the Past or into the Future, and from a different Dimension, was one of the key symptoms for a wizard to plunge into Insanity. It became addictive. It suggested perhaps there was a way to manipulate the Netherworld’s powers. Once a wizard succumbed to this allure there was no way of turning back. The mind of the wizard plunges into a bottomless abyss which there is no return.
Ursala, a child of eight, seemed already familiar with this feat.
“Grandfather, do not fret. I know what I am doing,” she giggled, looking up at me and shaking my hand she clutched in hers. “You are such a worry wart!”
I remained silent. Silent and cautious. Aye, pilgrim. I’ll admit it. I should have been afraid. Yet strangely I was not. Not with little Ursala and her vast Netherworld powers standing beside me. And that worried me. Why was I not afraid? We were dealing with the seductive side of the dark form of Insanity itself. Yet I was not afraid. Bad enough that I, a Bretan wizard, knew the dangers I might face in this terrible place. But what of the Reverend Father? How would Constantine Marcellus’ mind, a mind of a normal human unencumbered by a magician’s gifts going to absorb all of this? In his lifetime he knew wizards and warlocks, witches and demons. He had seen their destructive, or sometimes beneficial, effects. But his mind was not built to resist the power of the Netherworld. If I felt any pangs of fear I felt it for the Niscian monk. Yet I remained the silent observer and made no effort to extract us from this dark morass.
“She comes,” little Ursala said simple, her voice almost a whisper and filled with awe.
To our right we heard the sounds of someone striding through water. Not deep water. Water only a few inches deep. Swift, strong footsteps, of someone powerful and confident in their stride. Someone sure of themselves in this environment. Someone, frankly, my mind told me I should fear.
An image began to form in the swirling canopy of mist surrounding us. The mist parted as if unseen hands split the thick fog in two And there she was. Ursala. Not the child Ursala. The child I knew still stood between myself and the holy father. She still clutched my hand with her tiny, pudgy little fingers of a Dragon infant. The Ursala standing before us was a far different, far more complex and therefore, far more dangerous creature to behold.
The mature Ursala was as tall as I. Tall and slim and carrying her Dragon femininity with an assured grace. She was dressed in what appeared to be leather riding gear covered with a light jerking of chain mail. But the individual links in the suit of mail appeared to be made of gold. A gold which shimmered with an aura of golden light. Beautiful to behold in not only its color but in the way it accented the mature Ursala’s female form.
Her pearl white complexion, unlike any other dragon complexion, was a dark ivory in shade and without a trace of a secondary color to mar it in any way. A Pearl Princess was a Pearl Princess because of the shading of her reptilian skin. The pebble skins of a normal dragon had two complimentary colors decorating it. The color combinations identified the clans. But not a Pearl Princess. White was their color. All white. This Ursala’s white was in the shade of dark ivory and very beautiful to behold.
In a graceful, assured gait, she materialized out of the fog and approached us with a smile on her beautiful lips. Coming to a halt directly in front of the child she bent down and kissed tiny Ursala on her forehead and stroked her cheek with the gentle touch of a mother’s embrace. Standing, she turned and gazed at me, the smile on her lips increasing and become softer to behold. Stepping in front of me she put her hands on my shoulders and then leaned forward and gently kissed one cheek, and then the other, before stepping back one step.
“Welcome, grandfather. I have not seen the likes of your kind in a thousand years. My heart rejoices at finally meeting you again.”
There was an image painted on her face of a person who had been searching for a long lost friend and had, just now, found him. In her Dragon’s eyes was relief, joy, and a large dose of love. Reaching out with a hand she stroked my cheek fondly and smiled before turning to look at the imposing, grim Mauk warrior beside..
“And grandfather Ankor. Always the reliable one. Always the strong one. Never willing to show his true emotions.”
She reached up and kissed him fondly on the cheek as well and then wrapped arms around him and hugged him tightly for a few moments before releasing him. Standing beside me it was easy to read the paladin’s emotions. Startled, confused, yet oddly pleased at seeing the adult he only knew as a child standing before him. When she released him and stepped back he shot a critical glance at me and frowned. And, as was his way, stoic in his emotions.
“We have much to discuss and little time to do it. Why don’t you start, Little One,” the older Ursala said as she looked down at herself.
The child Ursala giggled as she released my hand from her grasp and turned to face the abbot.
“Much depends on you, gentle person. The outcome we all seek depends much on what you may decide in this grim place.”
“What do you mean, child? I . . .I am confused.”
“I know. The first time I was in here it was hard for me to understand. But it became easier the more times I entered. But, for you, this will be the only time you will come into such a strange place. What you must do is concentrate. Listen to our words. Focus your mind on what we say and not on what you see.”
“Constantine,” I began, trying to help explain, “you have heard wizards talk about the Netherworld. A place where a wizards gathers his powers. A place where the souls of the dead come after they leave the Outer Realms. This is also a place where one can see the future and the past. Many futures and many pasts.”
The child nodded, smiling, and continued.
“Think of a book with many pages in it. On each page is the drawing of a man running. One page shows him lifting his leg, the second page shows him stretching his leg out, the third page shows him setting his foot down on the ground. There are enough pages to show all the movements needed for that man to run one complete step. The pages are repeated in sequence over and over again. You pick the book up and you fan it quickly. What do you see?”
“You see movement. The appearance of a man actually running,” the abbot answered.
“Yes. The Netherworld is like that. A huge book showing the actions of all of us over and over again. But in here we can see what happened in the Past and what might happen in the Future.”
“Ah, but more than that child,” the fully grown Ursala began, smiling with a look of sadness in her eyes as she gazed into the face of the troubled abbot, “We have to make it more complicated. Consider the idea that there is not one book in here showing us the Past, Present, and Future. There are hundreds of books–thousands of books–showing us essentially the same man. But not exactly the same man. In each book there are differences. Something has been added or subtracted from the drawing. Each book then becomes unique. The same man . . . yes. But one with subtle differences.”
I felt the confusion mounting in the abbot’s mind. The ominous strangeness of our surroundings, the presence of two Ursalas, the explanation of what the Netherworld contained was beginning to overload the poor Niscian’s mind.
“Constantine, do you remember the Palace of Mirrors in Moravia?”
Several years ago I accompanied the abbot as he journeyed to the Kingdom of Moravia up into the high country. We had to travel through hostile Rogarian territory to get there and I was asked to journey with him in order to guide them safely to their destination. In Moravia was the king’s palace. In that palace was a long hall where the walls, the ceiling, and the floor were lined with mirrors. One stepped into the hall and became instantly disorientated. For one immediately found himself looking at a thousand copies of himself, one after another in long lines that seemed to go on into infinity no matter where one looked.
The abbot nodded.
“That is the Netherworld. That is the Future and the Past and the thousands of alternates of ourselves staring at us. The universe is filled with mirrors. Millions of them. Each reflect the lives we live. But if you look closely in each mirror you can see differences. Some small. Some quite apparent. But differences which makes that mirror unique.”
“So . . so you are saying,” growled the menacing voice of the Mauk beside me, “There are perhaps millions of copies of me scattered throughout an endless number of universes. We are the same. Or almost the same. And in here, in the Netherworld, a wizard could actually meet their doubles?”
“Yes,” I nodded, pointing to the two Ursalas, “Our Ursala is still a child of eight. The one who has greeted us comes from a different dimension found somewhere in the Future. One can summon as many of one’s alternatives as might be desired.”
“This is good?” the paladin asked, frowning.
“Far from it,” both Ursalas said at the same time in almost exactly the same voice. “At least for a normal wizard or witch. But not for us. To us this is our home. The many alternative universes become our playground. We thrive in here.”
“So why am I in here? To meet a different me?” asked the Niscian weakly.
“No,” the little Ursala began, shaking her head firmly, “You are here to see both me and myself as a grown woman. We wish to show you that not all Pearl Princesses conform to the wishes of the Dark Lords. We hoped to convince you your destiny is not written in stone. Destiny has many possibilities. Many variables.”
In the distance and through the thick white mist we heard the voices of women screaming. Screaming in rage. They seemed to be circling us. At one moment one voice would be to our right. The next it would be behind us while another voice would rise out into the gloom to our left. Four separate voices screaming at the top of their lungs. Yet still some distance from us.
“My sisters,” the two Ursalas said in unison and smiling at the same time.
“They are not pleased we have come to talk to you,” the oldest Ursala began, a look of sadness and irritation painting her beautiful face. “They are not happy we have brought two who are not wizards into the Netherworld. But they will keep their distance from us. They fear the both of me. They fear even more our lovely Roland when he is armed with his incredible sword.”
“Gentle one,” the child began, taking both of the abbot’s hands into hers. “You must help Roland. We must defeat the Dragon gods in our world and throw the Hartooth back into their foul swamps. To do that we must have others, both Man and Dragon, to join our cause. They must come and fight alongside my two valiant grandfathers here. They cannot do it alone. They need your help.”
“How can I help? My monastery has been destroyed. The Rogarians have devastated our homelands. I am but a simple monk without a home and without hope.”
“You are much more than that, Niscian.” the oldest Ursala answered firmly, “Far more than that. You are possibly the key in which we might unlock the hearts of others. Your efforts in defending the Malawei alongside our grandfathers will go a long way in bringing others into the fight.”
“We can save the Malawei?” I asked, looking at the older Ursala and sounding hopeful.
She turned and looked into my eyes and slowly shook her head no.
“I am sorry, grandfather. But the Malawei will be destroyed. There are no combinations of events which can turn the tides against them to their advantage. They will not all be destroyed. There will be many survivors. Survivors which, hopefully, will join your cause and fight Hartooth again. At least that is our hope”
“Yet you do not sound convinced this will happen,” Constantine quipped, sounding puzzled. “I thought you could see into the future.”
“Yes, we can.” the child answered, nodding her head and smiling. “But the future changes. Whenever someone in one dimension tries to alter the events in another, all of the dimensions change. The future is not constant. Destiny is not irrevocable. It is forever changing.”
“The best we can hope for, gentle one,” the oldest Ursala began, placing a comforting hand on the confused monk’s shoulder, “is that your actions in this universe will inspire others of your kind. Inspire them to shed false religious beliefs and dogmas and join the fight against our enemies. This battle trying to save the Malawei is already lost. But it is a battle that still must be fought. For in that fight we bring hope and courage to others.”
“Child,” the green and yellow Mauk paladin rumbled out loud as he stared down at the child in front of him, “who is this creature whom the Bretan calls the Evil from Afar? How can we find him and destroy him? If we could do that, would not we all free ourselves from this war?”
Ankor Mauk’s question seemed to agitate the Four Sisters even further. Their screams and wails increased in intensity and seemed to get closer. Even the hot and humid mist surrounding us seemed to get thicker and clung to our skins more tightly.
“We do not know who he is, grandfather,” little Ursala answered. “He hides himself even from our powers. He is present in this version of our universe and in a few others. But he is not in all.”
To our right something very large splashed into deep water. Waves, as high as our knees, washed over us from it entering the water. Both Ursalas turned their heads to look in that direction and both had the look of concern clearly etched in their lovely faces.
“We cannot stay here much longer. My sisters are summoning creatures who are loyal to the Evil One,” the older princess commented quietly.
“All that we can tell you, grandfather,” the little one began again, looking up into my face with a serious look in her eyes, “is that he is hampered in his efforts to keep you in his Inner Eye whenever we are with Null Stones. This greatly irritates him. He is constantly trying to find ways to eliminate all the Nulls Stones who might wish to assist you.”
“So Alvis Fairhands is in grave danger,” the Mauk grunted.
“Yes. And so too is this Master Breen you wish to converse with, Roland. Perhaps he is even in more danger. His powers as a Null Stone are impressive.”
“You must go,” the older of the two princesses said firmly as she turned to look at the Niscian abbot. “Help our grandfathers, gentle one. Stand with them as they help the Malawei. Without you our desire to defeat the Evil One becomes infinitely harder.”
The child took Constantine Marcellus by one hand and reached out and took the hand of Ankor Mauk. She then looked at me and nodded.
. . .and we were gone.