Destiny is a layered maze,
A twisting labyrinth
With thousands of dead ends
And even more unseen possibilities.
No one can fathom their destiny.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
Cedric settled down onto the flat plain just outside the small fortified city of Oslon. Climbing out of the saddle I tried to stretch and revive the numbed, almost-frozen body of mine. The birds of Gawain and Gawaith came gliding in for a soft landing on either side of me. Glancing at the faces of my two young wards I smiled. They–like me—were almost frozen to the bone. A dozen yards away the serpentined, leathery winged form of Ankor Mauk’s Winged Beastie, Upasha, settled into the snow. Immediately he curled his head and long spiked tail around himself and folded his wings tightly around the moment the Mauk warrior climbed stiffly out of his saddle and jumped into the deep snow.
As I watched the warrior move with some difficulty through the snow toward us I gazed at the country side surrounding us. The air was bitter cold. The sky was as crystal clear as I had ever seen it. The sun lit the world with a bright but remarkably cold light. But it did bring out the colors and the terrain my eyes seemed to feast on. The rugged forested countryside, the trees each holding a heavy weight of virgin snow, was beautiful beyond description. Again I found myself impressed with the raw beauty of my world. Again I thought about how stunning beauty hid violent terrors from the unsuspecting.
Beauty masking the horrors of war. The horrors of the hunter hunting his prey. Of innocent victims suffering unspeakable hardships in the bitter cold of a winter like this. Returning my gaze to the approaching Mauk my mind was elsewhere.
How can we stop this incessant war with the Dragon?
Stop this bloodshed. Stop this howl heard in the Netherworld of tortured souls.
Stop the continuous migration of freshly slain souls entering the Netherworld long before they were due.
There was no way to do except through shedding more blood. To end the war one had to find the source of its beginning. To find that beginning of the conflict meant two things; first I would have to find the Evil from Afar–that creature which seemed to be manipulating both man and Dragon and keeping the struggle going–and destroy it somehow. An imposing task in itself since whatever this entity was, hidden in the mists and darkness of the Netherworld, it was far stronger than I with its magical powers.
The second thing I would have to do would be to enter the Netherworld and travel back to the Far Past. Travel there to the beginning of the conflict and find the source which started it all.
A trip I dreaded to contemplate. Already I had been, in these last few weeks, too many times into the Place of All Fears. Each time a wizard entered the Netherworld he faced the real possibility of becoming addicted to its sensual delights. Make no mistake about it, pilgrim. Entering the Netherworld is a sensual delight which cannot be fully explained, nor understood, if one is not endowed with wizardry powers. It is an electrical surge of simulation which seems to touch every nerve in the body. The rush of overwhelming clarity–of sheer unlimited power–of brilliant insight–is overwhelming. If a wizard develops a taste for this elixir and decides they cannot live without it insanity soon follows. An insanity which no creature of magical talents has ever returned from alive.I did not want to enter the Netherworld and seek out the far past–the root cause–for this conflict. I did not because I feared what I might find at the journey’s end. And what might become of me if I journeyed too long.
I tore my thoughts away from contemplating the Netherworld as the Mauk approached me.
“We are not far from Oslon,” I began, “I am sure there will be wizards waiting our arrival. Along with numerous warrior-monks.”
“You are expecting a trap, monk?”
I smiled sadly and glanced on in the direction of Oslon.
“These days, warrior, except for a few close to me, I trust no one. And I am especially wary of news arriving from afar.”
Gawain and Gawaith, my blond maned waifs, eyed me seriously and remained silent. Yet I could feel their emotions. And they were conflicted. The youth in each of them was enthralled over the possibility of seeing action. After so many weeks cooped in our caves deep in the forests with little or no freedom to hunt and roam the skies, they were like thoroughbreds straining at the bits to run.
On the other hand I felt their cautions as well. They knew, as I knew, that if a trap lay waiting for us it would be one where the odds would weigh greatly against us. Smiling, I looked on the faces of these two with much affection. Only weeks earlier they would plunge head-long into the fray without once regarding what odds they might face. But they were maturing. Growing more cautions as they came through each fray. They would gladly follow me into any battle regardless of what odds we might face. But they would do so with a calm resolve and their eyes open. I nodded, pleased to see their resolve as steely firm as ever yet with their eyes open and their eagerness for adventure tempered with some measure of caution.
“Trap or not, if the possibility of recruiting five thousand Iberian swordsman is at hand, we must make an effort to do so. Yes?” the Mauk grunted, nodding as he understood my caution. “Of course, you do have a plan. Now would be a good time to hear it.”
I smiled and looked at the rugged, scared and multi-hewed face of Ankor Mauk. The Mauk paladin was a cunning creature as skilled with his weapons as any warrior I had ever seen. I trusted this creature–this Dragon–implicitly. Hard, taciturn, loyal and absolutely fearless, he would stand by me and face whatever Evil there needed to be faced without flinching. The similarities between a Dragon paladin and a human warrior-monk were uncannily similar.
“A plan I have, my old friend. But one you will not be happy to hear.”
“Aye, probably so.” the Mauk nodded and almost smiling. “But let us hear it anyway. I grow cold standing here doing nothing.”
The plan was simple, as all plans with any chance of succeeding should be. If a trap was waiting in Oslon for us I knew it would be a trap to snare me in its iron grip. I expected a Rogarian trap. I looked for Imperial Rogarian swordsmen lying in wait and one, or possibly more, Rogarian wizards in hiding and waiting for me to enter the double-walled compound of Oslon. If a trap lie in wait it was my intentions to reveal it as quickly as possible and to eliminate it if at all possible. To do that I had to reveal myself to one and all. At some point I would have to enter the city openly and without disguise. I would enter the city seeking those who might be willing to join my cause in fighting both the dragon Hartooth and the Imperial Rogarian armies. I would have to find a way to make my plea in front of a large crowd.
Creating disguises for Gwain and Gawaith I dressed them as riders of Great Wings, tuning them into warriors not even their loved ones would recognize, and sent them on their way. They were to enter Oslon hours before the Mauk and I and find rooms if possible in one of the two inns. With the Dragon paladin I changed his green and yellow color pattens of a Mauk clansman into the sandy brown and pail red colors of a desert Horon clansman–those creatures who occupied the rolling sand dunes of the High Horon deserts of the Far West. Desert clansman of the Horon were much like the ubiquitous Iberian swordsman. One could find a Horon clansmen in almost any settlement where Dragons were present. They were great explorers and roamed the foothills of the High Kanris frequently. I suspected Horon clansmen were well known in Oslon and so one more would not raise an eyebrow of suspicion with anyone.
Cedric and I would enter Oslon on the morrorw. We would make no effort to disguise ourselves. We would come as we were–as war bird and warrior-monk of the Bretan. Or more accurately, as the Malus Apostate war bird and warrior-monk once of the Bretan.
Our arrival would cause an immediate stir within the double walls of Oslon. We would be, in the instant we landed on a the roof of a Oslon aviary, the lighting-rod for any devout follower of the major religions practiced in and around the city. As Malus Apostates we were condemned traitors to all religions. Condemned to death and any religious follower was compelled by their religion to hunt us down and destroy us. The moment we made our appearance we would be challenged. My hopes were that, in those who wished to do their religious commitment by destroying me and Cedric, it would draw out the Rogarians and reveal one and all to us.
This was my plan. And if all went well we would soon find out if hungry and penniless
Iberian swordsmen lay in large numbers in and around Oslon. Or we would discover another
diabolical Rogarian trap and reveal it to all.