The mind is a dark place, my child.
It is filled with many voids and hidden chasms
just waiting to entrap the
-From the Book of St. Albans-
She sat across from me, a warm fire burning gently in its place between us, with the cave lit with many burning torches and the smell of a large meal being prepared by Gawain and Gawaith. A break in the driving snow storms had allowed Cedric and I to return to the caves and little Ursala. The child was to stay in these caves for the winter. She, the twin imps of the Vik, and at least one of the Zhintii brothers, along with the stubborn old Niscian monk, would be her protectors.
It would be a terribly difficult and lonely existence living in these caves. I felt her loneliness and frustrations every time I returned to visit her. But there was nothing else which could be done. She could not reside in any Dragon or human city or village. Her powers were growing so strong she had to force herself to keep them partially hidden from those in the Netherworld and the Outer Realms who searched for her. In truth living deep within the caves assisted her in hiding her for others. The very rocks seemed to have a masking quality to them which severely limited the range a wizard’s or warlock’s abilities.
But, looking into her smiling face, and seeing the determination both in her young face and in her fierce soul, I knew it would not be long when she would need to hide. Her Netherworld powers would soon overwhelm poor Alvus Fairhands. Even in the few days I had been away from her my return was greeted with the increased force of her mind. She was, even now, as powerful as any wizard I had encountered. Raw power radiated from her soul. The sensation of static electricity running up and down one’s spine and filling every pore of one’s body with warmth and strength told me her powers increased.
Powers which needed training.
Powers which needed a tutor who would be at her side every hour of the day to give her that training. A tutor who would be around when I was not. A tutor who was trustworthy and loyal to our cause. A tutor whom I could trust in whatever situation we might find ourselves in.
I had hoped to convince Master Breen to join our cause. The master was a Null Stone of superlative powers. True . . . he was not a wizard. He could not enter the Netherworld. Nor be affected by the Netherworld. But his long years in searching for and wizards who had lost their way and had fallen into the Netherworld’s abyss made him the perfect tutor for little Ursala. His skills in reading the hearts and minds of others in a non-magical way were well known. His experience in knowing what forms of madness which could grip a wizard or witch in the Netherworld made him the perfect tutor.
But Master Breen would not join our cause. He served the Bretan. He was the assassin of wizards for that holy order. He could possibly be searching for us now with orders to silence the two of us forever.
“Grandfather, your thoughts stray on too many different subjects. If we are to have this contest then you must push them aside. I wish to beat you this time. But it would not be the victory I desire if you do not put your entire self into the effort.”
She spoke in the voice of a young child. Soft and light, and full of fun. But I heard a shade of sophistication, a note of maturation, and again I was impressed in how she seemed to be blossoming like a lovely flower before my very eyes.
“Very well,” I nodded, smiling. “They have been removed. You have challenged me. The game is for me to penetrate your mental defenses. I am to find a bronze door you have created in your mind and to knock on it three times. Is that correct?”
“Yes, grandfather,” she giggled in delight. “I warn you, I have been practicing a new defense. One that will surprise you.”
“Very well,” I nodded. “Let us begin.”
There was a rush of cold wind and a sensation of bodies swiftly moving through a black void. Abruptly came a cessation of movement and, opening my Inner Eye, I found myself in infinity. Above me, below me, on either side of me, there was no definitive landmark to be seen. In front of me, however, was a golden round orb . . .more like an oversized bronze shield, but made of gold instead of bronze . . . floating perhaps a dozen yards ahead of me. Behind the shield was a wisp of white satin shaped roughly like that of a Dragon. But there were no details or facial expression in the formless shape. It floated in an almost stationary fashion in front of me but with the perceptible undulation as if a wind kept making it oscillate back and forth in a lateral motion.
Instead of the sheer strength of a massive stone wall for her defense she decided to use the more agile services of an amorphous drone. Neither human nor dragon. Neither alive nor dead. Amorphous drones were entities of the mind created by powerful wizards to do their bidding with the Netherworld. If captured or compromised in any way, amorphous drones simply dissipated into thin air, taking with it anything it may have acquired in the process.
Smiling, I knew she had had assistance in designing this defense. As if to confirm my suspicions I heard her gay laughter in my head and then her merry voice.
One of my sister’s thought of this, grandfather. She said if I could make enough of these lovely creatures no human could break through. I have my doubts, frankly. But we shall see.
I smiled warily.
You have been talking to your sisters again, child? They keep returning to bother you. They continue their efforts to make you follow your destiny. Dangerous they are, Ursala. Dangerous to all living creatures. I retorted.
When all of them come to visit they are mean and cruel and want me to follow a path I do not like. I love my sisters, grandfather. But I do not trust them.
Which sister is the one who thought of this defense?
Kharina, grandfather. She is the one so much like me.
Ah, Kharina. I said.
The Fourth Sister.
The sister who promised all of Dragonkind would rise up and eradicate mankind. She of the magic voice. The voice and the beauty of a Pearl Princess so complete she could compel any Dragon to do her bidding.
Kharina the Seductress.
Kharina the Man Slayer.
I should have known.
The most dangerous of them all.
The Four Sisters; Morgana, Lhasha, Valinia, and Kharina. Morgana the First Sister, the one who lifted Dragonkind out of the swamps and forced Dragonkind to rise and stand on two feet. Lhasha, the Second Sister; the one to give Dragonkind sentient thought and an eternal soul. She also was the one who taught Dragonkind how to build cities and highways and how to forge iron from the rocks and grow crops from wild seeds.
Mojhana the Warrior; the one who taught Dragonkind how to forge weapons and make war. Her strident voice and implacable hatred for anything human she infused into the Dragon’s soul. Then came Kharina The seductress. The Man Slayer She instilled into the beating heart of the Dragon the desire to surpass humanity in all endeavors. To conquer them and subject them to eradication. With Kharina the Dragon fully heard the song of bloodlust and the raw emotional fury which went along with it aimed at humanity.
And now tiny Ursala. The Fifth Sister. The promised one who would unite all the clans and lead them into the final battle with humanity. Ursala the child would grow up and become every bit as alluring as Kharina. Yet more powerful in her command of the Netherworld. The combination of the Dragon enchantress and her command of the Netherworld would make Ursala the most dangerous of all of the Pearl Princesses. She had the potential, even now, of achieving most of the goals the Dark Lords promised Dragonkind would accomplish.
But Ursala was with me. Ursala, the child, struggled to reign in the fevered mania her four sisters pressed upon her. She, unlike the others, did not see humanity as the enemy. She resisted the addictive embrace of the Netherworld. She wanted to be different from the others. But she was a child. A child in this realm who faced incredible odds of even reaching her next birthday. A child hunted by those who wished to return her to her proper role in Dragon prophecy as well as those who wished to destroy her because of Dragon prophecy.
And now, added to all of her woes, came another more ominous than any. Kharina, the Seductress, within the Netherworld was beginning to take an interest in the child. To become friends with Ursala and willing to assist in her training. A threat I could not allow to continue.
But one I had no idea how to counter at the moment.
Are you ready?
“Yes, grandfather! Begin”
Thousands upon thousands of large black and brown rats scurrying around our feet, leaping other each other, clawing and screeching as the entire mass was a living carpet of fur and flesh.
Far away I heard both Ursala and Kharina screech in surprise and disgust just as I launched a frontal attack on the single amorphous drone floating in the air directly in front of me. Our swords met and there was a thunderous boom of crackling electrical energy. Sparks flew and I felt the pressure of the drone’s shield pressing back.
I twisted and slipped to one side of the shield. The drone could not counter fast enough and sailed a few yards past me before regaining his stance. But it did not matter. Another amorphous drone floated lazily in the void before me. And another. And another. Hundreds of them lined up facing me, shield to shield, each the same and stretching for as far as the eye could see to the left and to the right of me.
Below us the carpet of brown and black rats seemed to grow both in mass and in the sound of sharp claws running against soft wood. The sound of wood splintering and being gnawed on by sharp teeth was quiet unnerving to the ear.
I felt the child’s emotions and therefore felt her ill at ease at the thought of standing on the living carpet of flesh and bone. But I also felt a small portion of Kharina’s emotions. She too was unprepared, and therefore disgusted, with the dark mass below her feet. I felt her twinge every time a large furry creature slid over her bare foot or against the side of her leg. I felt her mind wavering. As Ursala’s was doing.
It was their downfall.
Closing my eyes I drew strength from the child and created a thousand copies of myself. A thousand Rolands, standing shoulder to shoulder, facing the floating drones, swords drawn and waiting to attack.
From far away I heard a child’s voice scream ‘eeek!’ I felt Kharina take a step back as she tried to disregard the rodents below her and concentrate on the defense. But I was now a rat. A rat burrowing underneath my cohorts. Twisting and turning and clawing my way deeper and deeper into the mass. I was searching. Searching for a crack . . . a crevice . . . a small opening within the child’s mind to slip into and burrow into her mind.
The mind is a labyrinth, pilgrim. A labyrinth of many levels. It is twisted. Complex. Dark. There are narrow alleys and dark channels which can take you from one level to the next without the person being aware of your presence. Sometimes these alleyways and channels come upon the explorer unexpectedly. When they do and one falls into one they take you to a part of the host’s mind which is very dark and very dangerous.
As a rat I found a crevice to slip into Ursala’s mind. My nose lifted and sniffing so that I might find an alley or channel to take me where I needed to be I searched for a few seconds and then found what I needed. It was a narrow little path filled with rocks and boulders. Boulders and rocks are discarded or forgotten memories. This narrow path was strewn with forgotten or misplaced memories. But it led me deep into her conscience to the place where I would find the bronze doors.
When you are in someone’s mind you must be prepared to ‘hear’ or ‘feel’ anything. Wizards, as I have often said, usually do not read a person’s thoughts so much as they read their emotions. Emotions have colors in their auras. Like all living things these auras change and glow and fade depending on the mood of those who possess them. As I traversed deeper into her mind I felt her childish anxiety concerning the rats. But more importantly I felt the presence of two others within her mind.
I expected to feel the presence of Kharina. And there she was glowing strong and vibrant. She radiated a glow which indicated a deep affiliation with the child. More like that of a mother to a child than a sister to a sister. Strong and enduring the bonds between the two were. I sensed these bonds would never be severed. I only hoped they could be controlled and limited.
But it was the other presence which made me, the rat, retreat back into a dark shadow and lift my nose to sniff intently its aroma. The Evil from Afar! Cold and blue were the colors and sensations of this foul creature. I sensed its silent presence in the auras of Kharina and not in the child. Like a symbiotic malaise it hid its presence from Kharina yet listened in on everything which Kharina was experiencing. I saw this image of an immense viper with lifeless eyes sliding through thick grass toward some unsuspecting prey. The aura of this presence was in shades of deep blue or black. It radiated power. Immense power.
The Evil from Afar! That entity which seemed to controlling the lives of millions. Worse, he was a creature which was manipulating the currents in the River of Time. Trying to bend Time itself to acquire some goal only he was aware of. Powerful, far more powerful than the combined efforts of the Five Sisters. He could be one of the Dark Lords. One of the gods of the Dragon stirring the currents in the River of Time. If he was a god how could a mortal like me defeat him in whatever he was trying to do? Why would my god, Shin’zhin, allow a Dark Lord to enter the Outer Realm to do such mischief? Why would he not come down from heaven and confront this terrible dragon god?
These were questions which troubled me. I had no answers which satisfied me and gave me a reason to hope for divine assistance. But what I felt assured in was the fact the Evil from Afar was unaware I knew of his presence in Kharina’s mind. For the first time in a long time I felt at last I knew something this creature did not.
But another thought crossed my mind. Perhaps I had discovered a significant advantage here! Perhaps, through deft handling of little Ursala, I found a doorway into the minds of the Four Sisters which would lead me to this creature. Through others I might be able to identify and locate this terrible creature and perhaps–perhaps–find a way to defeat him.
Excitement stirred my soul over this possibility. An emotion I had to quickly extinguish if I wanted to keep the Evil from Afar from feeling my presence so close to his! But I did so rapidly and, still the rat, scurried out of my hiding place and quickly approached the bronze doors.
Far away I heard the terrible clamor of amorphous drones doing battle with the images of a thousand Rolands. Above I could feel the battle being lost. I could feel Ursala’s excited soul cheering on her troops and expecting victory at any moment. So too I could feel Kharina’s mind. More mature, more cautious, she nevertheless basked in a glow of confidence Ursala’s defenses had won the contest.
Feeling Kharina’s glow of satisfaction was the moment I converted my rat’s image into my natural one. Raising a mailed fist I struck the surface of the glistening doors three times. Like magnificent cathedral bells each blow of the mailed fist rang with a beautiful note. On the third note I heard Ursala cry out in defeat–and whoof!– out of her mind we came and back into the Outer Realms.
“Oooh! I am so angry at you, grandfather! You used trickery . . .again . . . to defeat me!”
Both of her tiny hands were rolled up in fists and her face was twisted up into a child’s mask of pure anger. Lifting my head I laughed softly and then motioned her to come across and sit on my lap. She complied, reluctantly, and draped one arm around my neck.
“Ursala, that is the lesson I am trying to teach you. Trickery. Subterfuge. Illusions designed to confuse you. The subtle acts of being a wizard or witch. You are powerful, child. Very powerful. Even now you could defeat just about anyone who might oppose you. But your enemies know your strength. They will not come for you brandishing their power in an effort to frighten you into submission. No. They will come using illusions, subterfuges, trickery –the only tools they have which might offer them an opportunity to harm you.”
“Oooh, I hate this world, grandfather! It is filled with evil and bad people! Perhaps it should be destroyed.”
I smiled and shook my head at her words.
“Many in this world are deceitful and evil, my little one. But not all. To destroy an entire world in an effort to rid of its evil means to destroy far more who are innocent and good. Remember, Ursala. Evil cannot be destroyed. Only confronted and contained. Wherever this is life there is Good and Evil. One cannot be had without the other. It is like salt and sugar. One cannot know how delicious sugar tastes without first knowing the strong taste of salt. Understand?”
“Well . . . . I am trying to, grandfather,” she mumbled, her lower lip still sticking out in protest of my victory, “But I feel the love in your heart for those who are even strangers to us and I find this puzzling. Puzzling but in a comfortable way. I have felt this in many others as well. I like this feeling. It makes me feel warm.”
I chuckled and squeezed her affectionately. Kissing her on her cheek I gently tried to push her protruding lip back into its natural position. She giggled and twisted around in my arms started laughing.
“Good. We are friends again, little one. Now be off with you! I must return to Malagna shortly.”
She leapt down off my knee and scurried away happy and carefree again. I watched her disappear around the cave’s opening and then sat for a few moments in silence thinking about my discovery.
If I could only find out who . . . or what . . this Evil from Afar might be.