Be like the graceful willow
Which bends and does not resist
When the wind blows strong;
For in truth,
Strength lies not in resistance
But in the power others
hurl against you.
-From be Book of St. Albans-
-One’s destiny is never the route anticipated.-
-Destiny is the Mistress of Obfuscation; one never knows where it might lead.-
-Random serendipity, or maleficent opportunity, are like the strikes of a blacksmith’s hammer on the glistening surface of Destiny.-
-Destiny may be formed with random thoughts, or an idle turn of a word; it is as virulent force fed by ideas. Or as weak as an old man’s passing whimsy.-
-One needs not seek Destiny. Destiny will find you.-
I remember these words vividly. Spoken to me by an old man who walked with a firm stride, hands clasped behind his back, his dark brown eyes taking in the beauty around us as we made our way through the gardens of St. Rolla’s Monastery. Even then, as a young initiate in the midst of my training in wizardry, Master Breen was old. As old as the Bretan Brotherhood was old some said. Others whispered Master Breen knew Saint Bretan; learned from the sect’s founder the Bretan Ways of a warrior monk. Still others said the old man had witnessed the final climatic battles against the onslaught of the Dragon which drove the remnants of humanity into the High Kanris.
It does not matter. I know not the truth. All I can say with certainty is that Master Breen was very old. Yet, in many respects, very young at the same time. He did not walk with the gait of an old man. His stride was slow, deliberate, but firm and unhesitating. He was old and wise. And gentle. This I remember the most. His gentleness.
His dark brown eyes were sharp and clear and filled with a mischievous merriment quite captivating to behold. He loved the cloistered gardens of St. Rolla’s with a passion. After every arduous training session, whenever a task in training a warrior monk to become a wizard had pushed me to the brink of exhaustion or frustration, I would find Master Breen kneeling at a rose bush and carefully working the flower beds around it in an effort to make it bloom more beautifully.
“Ah, the young wizard has suffered another defeat?” he would say, a smile working his thin lips, his voice quiet, yet compelling, to hear. “You need not worry, boy. Tasting defeat in a trial of skill is but a thin layer added to the eventual lustrous shine. Patience is the key. Patience and endurance. Yes . . . patience and endurance.”
He would come to his feet, wait for me to join at his side, and we would stroll through the gardens for hours on end talking about my difficulties. Ah, to be honest; I would be the one talking and he mostly listened. He would smile, make an amusing comment about something or the other, and it all seemed to come together by the end of our stroll. I always felt better, and even prepared, for the next day’s difficulties after these talks.
Master Breen was neither a monk nor a servant at St. Rolla’s. He had no official position there. Yet he was much revered by monk and servant alike. Even the abbot himself demurred to Master Breen’s wishes whenever the old man voiced an opinion. It was, in retrospect, all very curious that such a one as he would come to live in a Bretan Monastery. Not that our monasteries are reclusive hideouts for the devout. In all of the surviving monasteries my brothers occupy, our doors are open to any who made need our assistance. The weak, the poor, the dying, the young, the destitute come to us seeking our aid. We turn no one away.
But in Master Breen’s case it seemed quite odd such a man would choose to live the simple monastic life of a Bretan monk. Neither rich nor poor, Master Breen was neither common peasant nor exiled nobleman. He was not an inhabitant of any of the standard class systems found in most of the societies in the High Country. He was an non-entity. A ghost who lived among the living. A ghost with very special skills.
As a young initiate I learned much from this old man. Important concepts a wizard must accomplish if they wish not to be seduced by the powers of the Netherworld. Power is corruption. Power is an enchanting seductress which lures their victims into a sensual oblivion which knows no limits. Once lost into that oblivion no wizard ever comes back. They are gone forever.
The Netherworld was the ultimate seducer; the ultimate power. A wizard who consciously played within its confines would, in the end, find himself standing on the precipice of his own destruction. In the end the seducer’s sensual call would become too much for the wayward magician to resist.
Think of the Netherworld, Pilgrim, as vast river which stretches off into infinity. Standing on its lone banks and gazing onto the river was like looking into Infinity itself. There are no boundaries. Only the unwavering flatness of water everywhere. Standing on the banks before the Great River of Time is an intoxicating liquor in itself. One’s senses are bombarded with exciting stimuli. But this sensation is nothing when compared to sliding into the water itself. The water in the River of Time is warm and titillating. The water is filled with an electrifying power which surges through every pore of your body with a breathtaking alacrity. Suddenly every atom of your body is filled with a sense of infinite power. Of infinite knowledge. Your eyes and mind can see into the Past as clearly as you can see into the Future. All things are known to you.
In the waters of the Netherworld all who have come before you, and all who will come after you, can be summoned. With stunning clarity, not only do you see the current of Time, you reside in all of its stunning detail. You see all of the currents of Time which make up the River of Time. Suddenly parallel universes spring up before your eyes. Universes uncountable and unimaginable. You see . . .You. You as You were in the past. You as You are in the Present. And You as You will become in the Future. You in all the different universes which might dwell in the River of Time.
For a wizard to summon the soul of someone who has, or will at some time in the future, tread the paths found in the Outer Realms is a dangerous liquor to taste. But the power to summon yourself . . . summon the You of your Past or of your Future, and discuss with them what is in store for you, is a power of destined to make you slip into the clinging arms of Insanity.
Terrible is the power of the Netherworld! Frightening are the dangers found in this River of Time. The allure of manipulating Time, of controlling the accidents of Fate which are destined to befall you, or anyone, is an addictive drug which lures the wayward wizard to his eventual destruction. Wizards become intoxicated with the power. This overwhelming intoxication convinces them they can manipulate Time itself.
Ah, Pilgrim! Foolish is the wizard who becomes thus seduced into believing this madness. The terrible truth is Time cannot be manipulated. The Future is too nebulous to clearly see. Too many currents weave a complex tapestry we call the Future. Certain threads within this tapestry may unravel and break. Others will fill in the gaps and make the weave even stronger. The Future is never a constant. It is always in a state of flux. Too many currents, too many variables, make up the Future. No wizard, however powerful he may be, can use the powers of the Netherworld to shape what is to come.
That I learned while at the monastery of St. Rolla. The powers of the Netherworld were to be used only when necessity demanded it. A wizard’s power came directly from the Netherworld. If one wished to be more of a wizard than a warrior-monk, one would eventually succumb to its lures. Into the abyss the wizard would fall. An abyss which there was no path available in bringing him back into the Light.
It was Master Breen who taught me about the seductress of power. In his soft and gentle ways he showed me the pitfalls
“To live with the Netherworld, Bretan, means to always look at it as a potential enemy. It never reveals its true purpose. It is neither Good nor Evil. Honor or morals means nothing to it. Because it cannot, or will not, consider the Good from the Evil it becomes the perfect residence for both. In the Netherworld never, ever, take anything felt or witnessed with your own senses for what it appears to be. The true nature of the Netherworld is to deceive.”
Words, spoken long ago by a man I so admired played across my conscience as I sat on my hunches beside a towering oak in the depths of the Goram Hill forest country. Below me, perhaps no more than two or three miles away, in a narrow valley between towering forested hills, I gazed upon the encampment of a Dragon army. I felt myself frowning. My heart felt like lead. The valley the Dragon occupied was long but narrow and as straight as the path of an arrow. Virgins forests, thick and dark, filled most of the valley floor. Here and there were large patches of open spaces where local farmers had hacked out fields to plant their crops. Running through the middle of the valley, twisting and turning in a dark brown ribbon of constant use, a wide and deeply rutted road made its way from the north to the south. In the north it finally faded into the vast sprawling grasslands of the Northern Steppes. Its opposite point ended in front of the massive wooden gates of a walled city called Malagna. The first of two large Dragon enclaves possessed by a small Dragon clan called the Malawei.
A part of my mind wished to dismiss the sight below me as some kind of fever-induced dream. The First Clan so far north in the hill country? Here, and apparently ensconced in their fortified camps, unbeknown by any human or dragon opponent?
Yet there they were. A vast fortified camp setting behind a double set of wooden palisades made from felled trees. Within the walls the Dragon had created a perfect city. Rows upon rows of tents formed perfectly aligned communities and wide streets allowed for easy access to any part of the camp. Just on the other side of the wooden walls a deep and wide trench had been dug encircling the entire fortification. Sharpened stakes driven at angles into the back slopes of the trench provided an extra barrier for any foe who might attack the dragon encampment.
This was not a temporary resting place where an invading army momentarily paused to rest itself. This was the beginnings of a permanent establishment. The rough canvas tents would soon be replaced with stout log cabins. A third wall, stronger in it construction than the first two, would be thrown upon the opposite side of the trench. With the addition of that third wall the Dragon would be rooted into the land itself. It would take an army four times the size of the enemy before me to dislodge them from this valley.
Yet, by Spring time more of the First Clan would arrive. Thousands more.
In this part of the Goram Hills neither the Malawei, nor the warriors from the two small human kingdoms nearby, would be strong enough to remove the Clan Hartooth from the valley. With winter setting in no force could be hammered together to do the bloody work needed before the spring thaws arrived. The Clan Hartooth had arrived in the North Country. The First Clan of Dragonkind. The clan who reveled at making war on all of humankind. The prophecy said they would unite all of Dragonkind and lead the combined clans into the Final Battle against humanity. They were here. In this valley. Threatening the very existence of humanity itself. And I, a Bretan warrior-monk, and one of the few surviving Bretan wizards left, sworn by my religious vows to confront Evil in all its forms, saw Evil resting in the valley below.
I knew my duty. I knew what must be done.
Evil had to be confronted.
Coming to my feet I turned away from the sight below me. My heart was heavy. Guilt and shame flooded through my veins. I would mount my powerful war bird, a magnificent black and red plumed Great Wing and ride away. I would shirk my duty and flee from this conflict.
A more powerful threat compelled me to act like a coward.