What is religion to you, pilgrim?
For most, it is a sanctuary of peace and harmony
Which gives it followers a safe harbor
To weather the terrible storms of life.
For others it is a tool. A weapon. A source of
Ephemeral power, both in this world
And in the spiritual world, which promises
The task masker untold wealth and power.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
She slept the entire night in my lap in a deep sleep of one who was completely exhausted. She moved not a muscle nor made one sound as her tiny face beamed up at me a mask of deep relaxation. I slept little during the night. For most of the night I sat holding her. Leaning up against the cave all and watching the fire in front of me slowly work its way down to glowing coals of dull redness. I felt terrible grieved at the thought the child was being assaulted by her Dragon sisters so long departed from this world. Though not here, in the Outer Realms, they nevertheless were quite real, and quite alive, in the Netherworld. And they often came into the child’s mind to accost her with their demands.
I felt chastised as well. I had promised the old Anktooth baron, her grand father, months ago, that I would be not only her protector but be her tutor as well. I promised him I would teach her the Bretan techniques we used in controlling the narcotic powers of the Netherworld. I would draw here away from the abyss of the Dragon’s Dark Lords by teaching her the patience, the strengths, and the grace of the Bretan Way. Of late I had been derelict in my duty in this regards. For weeks I played the role of protector and field general in trying to find those who might stand with us to fight the Hartooth. In that time I had neglected her and she had suffered for it. And in acknowledging this I felt a deep pain in my soul over it.
She stirred just as I heard from beyond the cavern’s entrance the sounds of deer stirring in the forest as they searched for their morning meal. She squirmed, stretched her tiny arms and legs, hitting me with a tiny fist in the mouth in the process, and wrinkled her face into a clown’s mask for a moment before she opened her eyes and peered up into my face.
“Good morning, grandfather,” she whispered, smiling, and blinking sleepy eyes in the process.
“Good morning, child. You slept well last night.”
“I always sleep well when you are near. When you’re here my sisters rarely come to bother me. And that’s good.”
She stretched again lazily in my lap and then folded herself up into a tight ball and snuggled deeper into my arms. I wanted to ask her about her sisters and try to get her to talk to me about what they had tormented her about. It wasn’t necessary to speak.
“I hear your thoughts, grandfather. Almost all the time if you’re not far away. I like to hear your thoughts and feel your emotions. They make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I like that feeling.”
“Are they so different from what you normally feel? Surely you felt the same when you were around your real grandfather.”
She frowned for a moment, then cleared her face, and nodded her head.
“Yes. Most of the time his soul was like yours. But there were times when he was very much like my father. Very cold and cruel. Every time he thought of my father he became very cold and determined. He scared me sometimes.”
Ursala was the youngest child of the Baron Baknar Hartooth, the ancestral leader of the Hartooth Clan. As promised by prophecy the Fifth Sister would be born into the Hartooth Clan. As had all of the Pearl Princesses. With the arrival of the last of the Pearl Princesses the Hartooth would rise up and make war again on all things human. So it had come to pass. Ursala was a Pearl Princess. The Fifth Sister. She was Hartooth. Her father’s clan was on the march and warring against dragon and man.
The only question remained was whether the rest of the prophecy would come true.
“What troubles have your sisters been giving you, little one.”
“Ooh, sometimes I so hate them!” she growled, balling up one tiny fist and hitting me on my shoulder. “I’ve told them over and over I am not like them! I do not want to hurt those whom I love. Nor anyone for that matter. But they keep coming back and telling me I must run away from you and return to my father’s clan. They say I am growing older and soon I will hear my blood singing. When that happens, they say, I’ll have more than enough power to do anything I want. Be anything I want. But I can’t stay with you when it happens. You will destroy me when the blood begins to sing.”
It was as if a dagger had been shoved into my heart. The Dragon’s blood song! The lust for battle and destruction which drives the adult Dragon into a kind of mindless blood rage. This blood song was an elemental part of the Dragon psyche. A genetic link forged into his soul eons ago when the Dark Lords first molded the Dragon. A force of overwhelming power and ferocity. And always acquired when a Dragon reached puberty.
The pain I felt was that of helplessness. I had no way of knowing what this blood song would do to her. I feared that no matter what I did, no matter what teachings of the Bretan Way I might give her in controlling her powers, it would all be for naught. She would be come what she was destined to become. My grand experiment to take the ultimate weapon forged by the Dark Lords themselves and use that weapon against them would, eventually, fail. All would be lost. She would become evil incarnate. She would lead all of Dragon kind against humanity. She would prevail if nothing was done soon to stop her.
And I? I knew what my duty must be. If I yet lived and wielded Helshvingar it would be my duty to slay her. In order to save humanity she would have to die. The pain, the anguish, at the thought of doing such a deed wracked my soul with despair.
“Grandfather, you worry too much!” she cooed suddenly, throwing her arms around my neck and kissing me on the cheek before giggling. “I know what you fear and I know what you will do with your terrible sword if it should come to pass. But it doesn’t mean it will be that way. That is why I took you, and grandfather Mauk, and the Niscian abbot, into the Netherworld to meet my other self. I wanted to show you all it does not have to be that you dread so much! Nothing has to be exactly as predicted. The blood song will come. But I will control it. I will not let it consume me. I promise, grandfather. I promise.”
I smiled, tears welling up in my eyes, and kissed her on the forehead gently. She giggled and kissed my on my cheek and then did an amazingly human gesture. Using a tiny Dragon finger she wiped a tear from my cheek and then hugged me tightly before setting back and looking seriously at me.
“Do you remember what you did for me, a long time ago, when we fled Anktooth and spent the first night on that cold mountain? I was hungry and asked if you were really a wizard.”
“Ah,” I nodded, smiling and trying to keep the deep emotional tugs of affection for the child out of my voice in the process. “Yes, I do remember. You asked me to make some Frik.”
Frik was a hot pastry of gooey sweetness so loved by Dragon children. I remember that night vividly. We, the child and I, along with Cedric, sat on a chilly and windy mounting peak in a cold camp sans any fire. Behind us were Great Wing riders chasing us and we dared not reveal ourselves by building a campfire. Ursala was cold, shivering, very scared and hungry. She asked me to show her some magic. I did to her delight and joy. Now she wanted me to do it again.
“You wish me to make you Frik?”
“Ah, well,” I said, frowning seriously and looking right and left. “Pick up that stone and throw it as hard as you can toward the fire.”
She leapt out of my lap and found a rock small enough for her to throw. With a childish determination she turned and heaved it toward the glowing embers of the fire. The rock arched high above her head and then started to fall. But before it did I lifted a hand and softly snapped my fingers. The rock stopped dead in its fall and turned into a large stone platter holding three stacks bf Frik on it. Slowly it began moving through the air back toward Ursala and stopped just in front of her beaming face,
“Frik, my lady,” I decreed humbly, smiling at seeing the joy in her face. “Three different kinds of Frik. One is filled with sweet apples. A second has lush strawberries. And the third? The third has a fruit I doubt you have ever tasted before, my little one. It is a rare fruit we humans like but find it hard to come by. It is Frik with bananas. Mmmmm, delicious!”
She was delirious with joy, hopping up and down on both feet and clapping her hands loudly. So loudly she woke the twins, Alvus, and the Mauk from their slumbers. Snatching the platter from out of the air she sat down, crossed her legs, and quickly filled her mouth with a banana Frik. With cheeks billowing out from her face her eyes widened in delight at the taste and she turned and looked at me with delight.
“Perhaps the others would like one too?” I suggested quietly. “Don’t worry. They’ll be enough for everyone.”
She nodded, struggled to her tiny feet while holding the heavy stone platter, and then went, one at a time, to each and all and gave them a Frik. I laughed when Hakim and Bellus warily eyed the platter of food they were obviously not familiar with and gingerly selected their choice. There cautious hesitation changed to immense delight the moment they bit into the steaming delicacy. Gawaith and Gawain did not hesitate. They selected one each of all three and sat down and began devouring the gooey pastry with passion. Alvus declined politely. I was surprised at the Mauk when he took one each from the three stacks and began eating quickly as well.
I made sure the platter never emptied until all had their fill. In the cavern that morning was laughter and conversation and a sense of familial companionship. It was needed. We all needed to feel as if we belonged to one another. Many trying and terrible times would await us down the road. But for now we were at peace. And it healed our battered souls.
She sat on a stone across from me, here eyes shut tightly, her face twisted up into a mask of terrible concentration. Both of her tiny hands were rolled up into fists and she had them on her thighs as she leaned forward and braced herself. I could not help but smile. Her face was so amusing to watch as she sat and tried to complete the task I had given her.
“ Now imagine it. A wall. A large stone wall miles thick and solid. Imagine that wall encircling you. Encircling your mind. No thoughts from others can seep through the wall. None of your thoughts can seep out.”
The others were outside doing various chores. Ankor, Hakim and Bellus, were preparing their mounts for the ride back to Malagna. Of course Ankor’s mount, the wounded Upasha, was still in the city, her wound still yet healed enough for her to fly. So the paladin was using a fire-breather loaned to him by his distant cousin, the baron Juris Malawei. They were returning to Malagna with the hopes of finding those who would stand with us in our fight against the Hartooth. The paladin was taking with him a small treasure in gold in the hopes he would find those willing to fight if properly paid. Gold supplied to him by both the largesse of the Lavartines and by me as well. The gold I had came with us all the way from Odair’s Landing where the Vik ’s mighty king, and uncle to Gawain and Gawaith, still rebuffed the Hartooth hordes from taking his kingdom’s capital.
Gawain, Gawaith, and Alvus Fairhands were unloading our gear and supplies and packing them into the new set of caverns we had just flown to. It was prudent on our part not to stay in one place too long. Especially so if little Ursala’s powers grew and she could not rein them in somehow. Which was why we sat deep in a cavern far from prying eyes and where I could instruct her on how to mask our presence in the Netherworld.
A wizard, warlock, or witch who has the power in their blood cannot truly hide themselves from those of equal power. As I have said before all life radiates an aura uniquely its own. Those with the gift of magic and access into the Netherworld do not just glow, they blaze with an intensity almost blinding to one’s Inner Eye. So it is impossible to completely hide it. But it is possible to mask it; to offset it by shifting its presence to some other place. If the mind could be trained to act like a mirror, one’s aura could be reflected away from where they actually were. It would take time, and much skill, for a wizard to sift through the many reflections and locations of where the aura glowed before finding the true location.
Ursala’s aura was far more intense and far more brilliant to behold than any thing I had ever seen before. She lit the Netherworld up like the blaze of a thousand suns. Her opened mind, unchecked and child like, blasted out her thoughts and of those around her in voices a hundred times louder than the loudest of any volcanic eruption heard. If the techniques taught to me by the Bretan to disguise my thoughts and aura could be taught to Ursala we stood a chance of surviving a little longer. If they could not, and if her powers eventually overwhelmed the Null Stone effects of the Niscian warrior-monk, we would soon find ourselves confronting wizards of all the religious orders, plus those from the Dragon, arrayed against us.
“Are you ready?” I asked, smiling affectionately at the picture of the child before me. “Here comes a rock trying to get through your wall.”
It was not a real rock I threw at her. It was a mental creation; a thought disguised as a rock which hurled through our shared world and smashed into the magnificent towering stone wall she had created. Without much effort Ursala’s imagination had envisioned the perfect wall. Heavy gray stones granite streaked with red veins of iron in each and tightly fitted together so evenly it would make even a Rogarian engineer stand back in awe to behold. Tall and thick and rigid it had withstood the first little rock I had thrown at it with ease.
“Good! Very good, little one!” I said, my voice filled with confidence and pleasure at her creation. “Now prepare yourself. Here comes a bigger rock. A harder rock. One thrown at your wall with more speed.”
It was much larger than the first. A boulder half the size of a man made of the same material as her wall. I hurled it at her at approximately the same speed a mighty trebuchet, the ultimate siege machines used by the Rogarians and Hartooth to knock down stone defenses, would sail over the trenches and smash down walls. Closing my eyes I hurled the rock. It arched high into a black void, tumbling in the process, and then watched it fall against the side of her mighty wall.
She grunted, more in surprise than pain, but continued to hold the image of her wall clearly and distinctly. I smiled as I watched my boulder gouge out a divot into the wal, with a splattering of rocks and debris flying in all directions. But the wall held. From her soul I felt both pleasure, pride, and relief. For a moment I felt her doubts. Now, after the test, she felt far more confident.
“Relax, child. Unfurl your brow and let me explain some things to you before your next exercise.”
She opened her eyes and relaxed her face and leaned forward to listen eagerly. On her tiny brown were beads of sweat and her eyes exhibited signs of how difficult it had been for her to concentrate so hard and so long. But she was eager to continue. I could feel her desire to learn anything and everything I might teach. Reaching out with a hand I wiped the sweat from her brow and went on.
“Your wall is strong and wonderfully built. It could resist many attempts to tear it down. But, eventually, it would be torn down. Rigid walls to block others out pose a grave risk, Ursala. It becomes a beacon for those in the Netherworld. And here in the Outer Realms. Such rigidity attracts the curious wizard. What are you hiding behind that wall? What secrets are there to be learned? How might I penetrate the barrier without being seen?
A skilled wizard or witch would not launch a frontal attack. Not the ordinary skilled wizard or warlock. Better to sneak in like the thief appearing from out of the dark night and disappear swiftly into the night once all had been learned. Do you understand what I am trying to say?”
“Yes, grandfather. But if the wall is high and thick and there are no entrances, would not even a thief reveal himself to me? I feel every inch of the wall and I know there are no entrances to pass through.”
“Ah,” I exclaimed, pleased with her question. A question I had hoped she would ask. “You think so? Would you be willing to wager on that?”
“A wager?” she sat up, her eyes sparkling, and a wide grin spreading across her face. “What kind of wager?”
“Let us say . . .oh . . .if I can slip unseen through your wall and into your mind you will cook for us huge Thakk steaks. With all the dressings. And you will have to do it by not touching any utensil or frying pan. It will all have to be done with magic.”
“And if I win?”
“All the Frik you can eat soaked in wild honey and coated with fresh bananas. Deal?”
She giggled in delight, clapping her hands, unable to sit still on her stone bench.
“Very well. Calm yourself now. Close your eyes and do the exercise I showed you which removes the emotions from your thoughts. Ah . . . yes, that’s very good. Now, build your wall. Build so it is cannot be scaled or entered.”
We both had our eyes closed. But we were far from blind. Our minds had united into one and I saw what she saw. She built her wall. Big and magnificent and breathtaking to behold. I became the image of a black rat scurrying around the outer base of the wall, sniffing and clawing and looking for any crack or crevice which might let me wiggle my way in. And of course there was a way in. Deep down in her mind, in a dark room she only felt at the subconscious level, there was an opening. I entered her mind, rose up into her conscience, and the black rat with long sharp teeth grinned into her startled face.
“Oh, no!” she cried out, breaking her concentration and jumping to her feet in the in frustration. “How did you do that?”
I laughed and held out my arms. She jumped into them with a frown on her face, yet with a kind of satisfaction radiating from her soul. She was somewhat miffed at the ease of my entering her defenses but far from angry. Her curiosity in wanting to know how I did far out weighed any thought of anger.
“Ha, I can taste the steak already!”
“Grandfather, that was no fair! You came in from below the wall. In a direction I was not expecting!”
“Precisely, my lovely. Precisely. Relying on sheer strength to hide your thoughts using a shield which cannot adapt is a poor defense. It will always be broken. Remember now. The mind is many layers deep. As deep as the bottomless ocean itself. We are aware of much which happens within it. But there are hundreds of layers underneath our consciousness few of us have ever explored. Until all the dark places have been visited there will always be an entrance. Now, one last exercise for the day and then we will be finished.”
She threw herself eagerly out of my arms and hurried to take her seat opposite of me. Tired as she was she nevertheless wanted to test herself again. I smiled as I remembered I too was once this eager, long ago, to tackle the mysteries of the Netherworld.
“To control magic, to make it work for us, is hard work , little one. Do you agree?”
“Yes, grandfather. My head aches a little but I am enjoying myself.”
“Good. But I must warn you. Magic can also be very painful. Especially so if you are resisting those who are trying to break down your defenses. I am afraid this exercise is going to be somewhat painful. Are you still willing to try?”
Her wonderful blue reptilian eyes stared up at me with absolute trust in them. I felt a tinge of guilt at what I was about to do to her. But it was important. She had to face such an assault on her defenses now, in a controlled environment, before she met those who were determined to destroy her. She did not hesitate in her answer.
“Yes, grandfather. I understand.”
“Remember me telling you that most wizards would prefer to enter your mind through subterfuge? That is, to find an opening somewhere below you consciousness and enter that way? Yes? Good. You know we are hunted. Hunted by most, if not all, of the wizards found in humanity. Hunted by most, if not all, of those who are Dragon. Almost all of them want to harm you, child. Many will decide to attack you on a united front and try to destroy you first in the Netherworld and then here in the Outer Realms. Understand?”
She had leaned forward and propped her head up on both fists tucked underneath her chin, the elbows of her arms braced on her legs. She nodded eagerly. I reached out and touched her cheek gently and smiled. So young and so innocent to be forced into such exercises which might save her life. I felt a moment’s spark of bitterness and regret. And then I went on.
“Build your wall again. Build it stronger than ever before. I am going to try and tear it down. En guard!”
We were back into the artificial environment of nothingness. There was no sound to speak of. No trees. No snow. No detail of any sort. Just the feeling of a vast empty room spreading out into infinity. Yet before my Inner Eye I watched Ursala’s wall snap into place. A huge wall. A wall so high I could not see its upper edge. A wall so long I knew I would never find a corner. A wall made of the same gray granite and red iron ore. Touching the wall it felt hard and cold with the seams of where one block was fitted against the next so fine not even a sliver of paper could be inserted between them.
It was a wall which had to be torn down. A lesson had to be learned. And I administered that lesson with a harsh brutality. But first, I had to lure the child into a false sense of security. To do that I launched my first rock like I had launched the last. It was a big, round, slow moving boulder flying in a long curving arc. It sailed gracefully high into the air and then, ever so slowly, curved downward to smash into the wall.
Hitting the wall is smashed into a thousand pieces but hardly scratched the wall’s surface. In the distance I heard the child laughing merrily. She was enjoying herself. Feeling very confident in her skill in constructing barriers. To feed her another helping of confidence I launched a second boulder. One a bit larger and a little faster. It too smashed into the wall and shattered. But this time it left a small dent in the wall which Ursala quickly repaired within the blinking of an eye. Again I heard her delight and laughter of a child enjoying herself.
Come on, grandfather! You can do better at that!” she exclaimed gaily. I’m ready for you! Try again!
Her voice came to me in my mind. Sweet and clear and so confident in her naivety. She was where I wanted her to be. She had to face the harsh truth of reality. She had to learn.
I assaulted her with the fury of a demonic fanatic. The projectile I hurled was not made of rock. It was not a boulder. It was a piece of hard iron, as thick as a grown man, shaped like the head of an arrow designed to penetrate armor. It was a massive weight and when I launched it I threw it at the wall with such force no human eye could follow its path.
It hit the wall with a resounding blast of destruction. I heard the child grunt in surprise and pain. But I kept my attention focused onto the wall. Stones flew and a clouds of dust momentarily blocked the view to the wall. I sent a soft breeze across its surface to clear the dust. When it reappeared there was the result I was looking for. There was a hole, ragged and sharp edge, drilled into the wall to a depth of almost ten feet deep.
She was no longer laughing. I felt, in the distance, her struggling to regain her focus. I did not give her a chance to find it. Two more such objects I hurled. One directly into the hole created by the first and a second aimed at a different part of the wall. Both hit with a thunderous roar. The damage was devastating. The hole now was wide and thirty foot deep. The second hole some yards away as deep.
Grandfather! No fair! You’re throwing too many rocks at me!
Rebuild your wall, child. Quickly! I don’t plan to wait for you. I growled back harshly.
I thought I heard a whimper but I did not stop. More iron projectiles came flying through the dull gray sky and burrowed into the wall. She cried out in pain but gamely tried to rebuild her wall. But too late. I launched six at one time, two to each hole I had already drilled into the wall, and four more aimed at a third portion of the wall. The noise of their crashing into the rock and rubble left me almost numb. Through the dust and smoke I thought I saw a glimmer light shining in deep within the depths of the first hole. But her wall began to shimmer and fade and suddenly it was gone altogether.
I opened my eyes and looked at the child. She was no longer sitting on her little rock facing me. She was lying on her back staring up a the cave’s sealing and crying. I jumped to my feet and scooped her up into my arms and held her close to me. Kissing her on the cheek I wiped tears from her face and kissed her forehead.
“Walls cannot keep a determined foe from entering your mind, Ursala. I am but one small wizard with limited skills. There are others far more skilled than I who wish to destroy you. But if several skilled wizards decided to unite and combine their skills a wall would be useless. A different defense must be found. One which can move and anticipate and react much more quickly. Next time we will work on finding the defense which suits your personality. Do you understand little one?”
Her lower lip was jutting out and tears filled her eyes. One tiny hand was wiping tears away from one eye as she nodded her head. I tried to smile but found my heart aching with regret I had to hurt her.
“Forgive me for being so mean to you?”
She nodded again, still hurting from the mental blows just received, but kissed me on my cheek.
“I understand, grandfather. Next time I will try something different.”
I hugged her and sat her down. She whimpered once more and then walked silently away
and toward the cave’s entrance. I watched her leave and thinking she would indeed do
something different. Far different.