2 Be warned, pilgrim;
The devious mind, the scheming soul,
is the playground for Evil.
To fight Evil one must have a clear
purpose; an unshakable plan
And not waver from it until Evil is
-From the Book of St. Albans-
Hidden in the Cloak of Invisibility I watched the burly Simion salute his captain and make his way out into the cold. Turning my attention I watched closely this Beletrix. The moment his kinsmen left, as in truth, most Iberians were when the banded together and marched off in large groups to hire themselves out as mercenaries, I saw the mask of deep worry fill the handsome face of the Iberian. Clasping hands behind his back the sturdy looking captain of fifteen hundred swordsmen strolled over to the single window of the cabin and stared out at the bright morning glare of sunlight reflecting off fresh snow. For a moment he stared at the rugged beauty of the countryside. But his eyes were not seeing the jagged peaks, the heavy forests, or the carpets of thick snow. His mind was elsewhere. His thoughts troubled him.
I smiled, knowing what depth of emotions raged through his mind as he tried to think of ways to save his men from the hardships to come. Reaching inside my tunic for a heavy leather bag filled with gold I removed it quietly and paused holding the bag of gold in one hand. While he stood with his back facing me I opened the cloak, shook the heavy bag of coins loud enough for him to hear, and then tossed it into the middle of the cabin’s floor before he could turn and see me.
“Wha . . . . !”
He made no move to approach the bag of coins setting upright on the rough plank flooring. Instead his eyes narrowed as he scanned the cabin from left to right. And then, not turning his back from the coins, he moved to the hearth. A hand reached out for the short-sword so favored by Iberians which lay sheathed and hanging from a wall peg beside the crackling fire.
“Who is here? What deviltry do you bring, wizard! Show yourself!”
“Stay your hand, warrior. I mean you no harm.”
With a flourish of the hand I threw the cloak off my body, revealing myself and nodding to the warrior in the process. For the briefest of moments a flash of surprise swept past the Iberian’s eyes. But the surprise swept past quickly and a thin smile spread across his lips.
“I am. . . ,” I began.
“Nay, you do not have to introduce yourself, Roland of the High Crags. I have known of you and your deeds for several years now. Since the time I was a youth serving as a squire at my father’s side when father commanded this company. High in the Kanris one night father and his escort came upon a gathering of Bretan followers who had come far and wide to hear the words of a certain warrior-monk. We Iberians have never hunted the Bretan as others did in those years. Those who gathered in this forest clearing knew this. They invited us to join them, to refresh ourselves with food and drink, and if interested, to hear the words of this monk. Father, always the curious man, agreed.
Your words that night, monk, filled our hearts with excitement. With fire! Words of wisdom–words of hope–of compassion. The belief that your god knows and loves each creature who cares to walk the Bretan Way resonated in our hearts. In mine especially. I had never heard such words. Never dreamed of such a possibility as you drew for the crowd could exist. Those words have stayed we me for all these years. Staid with me and guided me as best as they could. For that I am grateful.”
“Then you are Bretan.”
Beletrix smiled a smile of sadness and shook his head no. And there was such a longing in his eyes which made me hurt for him.
“I cannot say that, monk. I have done things, commanded others to do things, which keeps me awake at night. Deeds I am ashamed of. Deeds which give me nightmares. So no . . . I cannot say I am Bretan.”
“Ah, but you are wrong, Beletrix. You are Bretan. I see it in your eyes. I hear it in your voice. In your heart is the wish to see a better world. To see this compassion. To know this peace I spoke of. It is the heart that matters, warrior. Your heart makes you Bretan. No matter what deeds you may have done in the past. One can always carve out a new path. If their heart wishes them to.”
For a few moments Beletrix stared at me in deep thought. Nodding, he pointed to a chair close to the food-laden table, while he walked to the table and poured two warmed wine from a leather pouch.
“The Oslons make a wondrous wine which is magnificent. Even better when warmed,” he said as he handed me one of the glasses.
“Indeed, I have often stopped in Oslon as I came and went from the high country just to sip the wine and rest for a few days. But that was in times not so desperate as they are now.”
The warrior setting in the chair opposite of me nodded as he tasted his wine. He was perhaps in his early thirties. In the prime of his warrior’s life. And if judging the sound and actions of his burly subordinate, Simion, I suspected he was a commander who had earned respect and loyalty from his men.
Just the kind of man I needed to help me confront dragon gods and prophecy.
“Your commander is sending you away. Why? And why without pay?”
Beletrix smiled as he set his glass of wine on the corner of the table and turned his gaze toward me,
“So it is true. There are cloaks which make you invisible. I have heard of them. All of us have. But I never believed these stories to be true.”
“They exist, warrior. And yes, I was in here long enough to hear the full conversation you had between you and this Simion.”
“Ah,” the warrior grunting, accepting the answer to his next question before it was even asked. “And is it true that you are also a wizard? A wizard of great power who has become Malus Apostate because you now serve Dragon masters?”
“I follow a path created by Shin’zin called the Bretan Way, Beletrix. No other. What I do I do because I believe in this path. I believe in his dreams. We Bretan have always believed the Dragon is not solely the face of Evil. Dragon and Man are cut from the same cloth. Both can be the definition of Evil. Both can be god-like in their saintliness. Evil disguises itself in whatever mask it wishes to in order to fulfil its madness. It has always been my duty as first a warrior-monk, and then as wizard, to confront Evil in all its forms. I have not changed. I still fight the good fight.”
“What of the rumors of this Dragon princess? The child said to be the Fifth Sister, this promised Fifth Princess, decreed by dark gods to come and destroy humanity.”
“She exists, warrior.” I answered. Why deny reality? “She exists and she is the Fifth Princess. But she is a child. She is not evil. She has the power of a hundred wizards and is need of training. That power will increase as she grows older. But as of yet her power has not possessed her. It does not have to possess her if she has the right guidance. The proper training.”
“So you train this child to control her powers. To what purpose? I cannot believe a Bretan warrior-monk of your renown has allowed himself to become a Dragon’s slave. But what compels you to tread in such dangerous waters, monk?”
I smiled and nodded. The warrior’s words were sharp and clear. He instantly saw the fine line I walked between fulfilling my dreams of a new world, a world filled with peace, or ultimately fulfilling dragon prophecy. The path I walked was filled with traps and terrors unforseen. At any moment something might spring up and destroy me and all of my dreams. And worse, trip that unforseen trigger which would make Ursula become the truly evil creature known as the Fifth Sister.
“I walk an uncharted path, that is true. A path that might indeed lead us to our demise. On the other hand, the path offers us a chance for a new world, a new way of life. If we can destroy Dragon prophecy and the ancient gods of Dragonkind, that world can become real.”
“Ah! I see,” the warrior grunted, nodding. “Like I have so many times on the battle field been forced to discard my broken blade and take up an enemy’s blade to continue fighting, so you plan to change this child’s destiny and turn it into the weapon which will destroy the gods!”
That word again. Destiny.
“Yes. She is a creature who deserves to live in a world filled with peace as much as anyone else. She is a child right now and nothing more. She has no desire to destroy humanity. All she want’s it to live. To grow and live.”
“She will bend to your will? Will become this weapon against her creators?”
“I plan not to bend her will so much as to guide her, warrior. To show here Light over Darkness. Good over Evil. But she alone will not stop the Hartooth and others who wish to spread their madness. For that we need an army. An army of followers who believe in the dream I offer”
Beletrix smiled. His eyes were suddenly bright with barely controlled excitement.
“The Hartooth are precisely the enemy my company and I wish to fight. My father’s father’s father fought them years ago. His generation has given my relatives and friends stories of how fierce this dragon clan is in battle and how desperate the fight was against them. Stories which have fired the imaginations of every generation of my countrymen since then. When we heard the First Clan was on the march my lads and I have chafed with the desire to fight them.”
“It is not only the Hartooth we must confront, Beletrix. It will also be the Rogarians. They too have become the face of Evil.”
“Agreed. Hymius, the fool, has succumbed to their fiery words and religious absolutisms completely. He believes every word uttered by a Rogarian priest or monk. He hates all things Bretan. That is why we are here in Oslon. That is why he takes their gold. Rogaria is expanding their empire in the high country. Their gold is buying entire armies and they are spreading their venom far and wide.”
“You and your men were hired by Hymius to come to Oslon and capture it for Rogaria?”
Beletrix nodded, a dark cloud of anger passing over his face as he did.
“We were a separate and independent company of men when Hymius’ agents found us. They told us we were coming to Oslon to fight the Hartooth. They gave us four months of wages and told us more gold would be paid when we arrived here. But when we arrived we found we had been duped. Hymius and his men are more interested in taking Rogarian gold than in fighting the Dragon. Rogaria wishes to extend its empire down below the shield wall of the high country. Oslon is the natural starting point. Hymius’ four thousand swordsmen were hired to take and hold Oslon and make it the main base for Rogaria to gather and grow its power.”
I nodded. I suspected as much. And I knew it was a plan which had to be thwarted. If not, Rogarian Great Wings and Imperial guardsmen would slowly make their way down the Trail of Tears in the coming summer and begin to build an army of conquest no northern kingdom or Dragon barony would be able to confront alone. Better it would be to destroy Rogarian plans while still nothing but words and commitments than to allow them the time to become firmly entrenched.
“But you and your men are being sent away. Why?”
“Hymius’ paymasters took a disliking to my men and I. We are the only Iberians here who think Rogarian words are both insane and dangerous. We have not hesitated in telling Hymius and the others our thoughts. So the Grand Inquisitor who is now here . . . and here in the belief he will capture you and burn you at the stake . . . told Hymius to send us away. Without pay.”
“We must stop them, warrior. We must stop Hymius and his masters from taking Oslon as their own.”
“Agreed, monk. Command me. My men and I wait for your orders.”
It was a simple and direct. I believed, hoped, that I might persuade him to join me. But I was surprised at how direct he was in his decision to become one of the hunted.
“Realize, Beletrix, that if you and your men join my cause you become as I. A Malus Apostate. You will be condemned by all who know not what we are trying to accomplish. If we fail we all will die a most horrible death. I must tell you the chances for failure are staggering to contemplate.”
“We all die, Bretan. Is one form of death more pleasant than the next? I heard you speak many years ago. I became a believer then. I still believe. In you. In your dream.”
“And your men?”
“I will release anyone who does not believe in me and the dream I follow. But I expect few to desert. We kinfolk have a tendency to stick together. We will stand with you, Roland. We will stand and fight!”
“Then fight you shall, captain. Fight you shall.”
Late that night I reentered Oslon and made my way down dark, snow packed streets which reflected eerily the silver white light of the moon. From two of the largest inns the laughter and raucous noise of celebrations told me Hymius’ men still had money to spend and intended to spend it well. I smiled in pleasure. By tomorrow their heads would be pounding with the fury of a hundred war drums being drummed by madmen within their skulls. This only the partial rewards for too much drink. Their eyes would be bleary from too little sleep. Their tongues thick and dry. Their stomach aching and threatening an upheaval with each step they would take. They would be in no condition to react to any sudden emergencies.
Draped in the Cloak of Invsibility I was confident no one would see. Within the cloak my wizardry powers were hidden from both those who lived in the Outer Realms and from those within the Netherworld. But the disadvantage to this invisibility was that I could not feel the presence of any wizards who might be here in Oslon. Until I unwrapped myself there would be no way of knowing how many, if any, of my enemies were about lying in wait for me. Perhaps I would not know even after I threw the cloak from me. When I arrived here yesterday I instantly felt the absence of the Netherworld. A wizard’s Inner Eye, the focal point in his mind which controls and manipulates his powers, is constantly aware of the Netherworld’s power source. The only way a wizard is severed from the Netherworld is when he masks himself in a Cloak of Invisibility. Or when the presence of a very powerful Null Stone was near by.
I did not doubt for a moment Master Breen was somewhere within the city’s walls. His powers as a Null Stone was legendary. His skills as an assassin of wayward and dangerous wizardry even more legendary. Was he here to finally confront and kill me? Or was he here on a different mission.
I was soon to find out.
Down a narrow lane running off a main street I made my way to the place I told the Mauk and the twins to remain hiding until my arrival. The lane was barely wide enough for two warriors to traverse shoulder to shoulder. It twisted and turned and soon enclosed one like that of a tomb. So narrow was this path that the rough log buildings on either side of my seemed to swallow up the sky and make the moon disappear completely. Gripping Helshvingar firmly within the cloak I turned to twist down a different direction with the lane. But a sound came from behind me which made me freeze immediately in my tracks.
It was the sound of someone stepping onto fresh, unpacked snow. The sound of a heavy body, like that of a warrior, stepping with a deliberate slowness into the snow and knowing the sound would be heard. By me!
“Fear not, Roland of the High Crags,” the unmistakable voice of the Master Breen spoke with a quite and calm assurance. “I have not come to harm you this night. I have come to warn you.”
I saw no one in the darkness. I made no move to throw the cloak to one side. The sound of the voice was from behind me. But I knew The Master was adept at throwing his voice. He could very will be in front of me! But how did he know I was here? Here at this hour of the night? How could he see me through a Cloak of Invisibility?
Few have been the times I have been frightened, pilgrim. Years of training–years of fighting and surviving against all the forms of Evil–make a warrior-monk a hardened creature who has long overcome the emotion of fear. But this night I felt the cold fingers of fear stealing up my spine. The master assassin of the Bretan was an uncanny, and unnerving, creature to confront! See him I could not! But he knew I was here! And I felt he was well within the touch of his Bretan blade if he so chose to strike.
“The town is filled with your enemies, monk. There are no less than three wizards waiting for you to reveal yourself. All three guard this Rogarian Grand Inquisitor for now. Come noon tomorrow they expect you to rescue those who are condemned. They have prepared an elaborate trap for you.”
“Master,” I began, speaking barely above a whisper and speaking into the veil of darkness and nothing else. “I am aware of their presence. I have been warned.”
“Yes, as I suspected.”
This time The Master’s voice came out of the blackness from my far left. Yet I heard no movement of a body sliding around me. The voice was quiet but firm. Quite close to me. And quite unnerving to listen to without seeing the embodiment of a figure near me!
“I know there are those within the city you have asked to help rescue these Bretan followers. Whether you succeed or not only the gods will reveal tomorrow. But it is the threat you are not aware of which I have come to warn you about.”
“I listen, Master.”
“There is, somewhere within the walls of this small outpost, a creature from the Nunnery of Hahnoor. She has come alone and disguised as a dragon warrior. Her name is Morisha. She is a nun who is, along with the three other nuns of her sect, assigned to protect Aukmar Hartooth form magic. She is a powerful creature, monk. A powerful Null Stone. It is her talents alone which mask’s your wizardry powers. Masking the powers of those who have come to challenge you.”
“Is she here to destroy me? Or to capture me?”
“I know not, monk. But I have been asked to come and thwart her efforts if she moves against you. I am here to warn you of tomorrow’s potential, warrior. Nothing more. If she strikes, expect me to strike. Be warned!”
And then The Master’s presence was gone. Disappeared. I heard no movement. I saw nothing amiss within the darkness of the lane. But somehow I knew The Master had left me alone in the blackness of the night and was no longer within striking distance. But he left me unnerved and in deep confusion. Unnerved in the fact that a creature even of The Master’s talents could approach me and none of my training warned me of his presence. He was far older than me. His age alone should has dulled his senses–dulled his abilities. But it seemed as if age and time had only honed them to an even sharper edge. He was an assassin of even greater lethality. It was quite possible I would never know of his presence if the time came . . . and the decision was made by my brethren . . . to remove me from this world.
But this was part of my confusion. The Master had been within striking distance. He could have easily killed me. I would have died and never had known on this side of the Netherworld who, or what, had been the source of my demise. But he did not strike. I was still alive. Were my Bretan brethren wavering in their beliefs of me being a Malus Apostate? Had my words been heard by the Bretan Elders?
And what of this creature from the dreaded Nunnery of Hahnoor? For the majority of both Dragon and Man Hahnoor was a place of dark mythology. Of deep terror. It was whispered the old, dark gods of Dragonkind lived in Hahnoor. It was a place where no one returned from if they were swept away or sent there. A place of immense evil power. Power so evil and so immense it even curbed the madness the Dragon gods.
A creature from Hahnoor was here in Oslon. Here, disguised as a Dragon warrior. A nun of immense power. Why would a creature so revered by the Hartooth be here, alone and unescorted? Why would she come disguised? What trickery awaited me on the morrow?