When one faces a force of greater strength,
Bend with its surging tide and channel its power in ways
It least expects.
For force blindly hurled is effort with no purpose;
Without a clear vision
No Victory is possible.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
In the saddle of my powerful Cedric I gazed down at the heavy forest floor below me. Winter’s first heavy blanket of snow fell the night before, creating a rugged, and isolated, canvas of white over the entire length of the valley floor. As the powerful war bird rose and fell on the various winds which played across this remote section of a mountainous valley, I used my Inner Eye to scan for any possible wizardry traps. A wizard’s Inner Eye is a powerful tool. One ‘sees’ the auras of all living things within the range of his powers. Since all Life radiates its own signature aura. It cannot be hidden, with the possible exception of a wizard who has wrapped himself in the folds of a Cloak of Invisibility.
So fine and so precise are the auras visible to the Inner Eye a good wizard can identify a person’s, or a species’, aura individually. Even among wizards their auras are so unique one can tell if a particular wizard may be Bretan, Niscian, Rogarian, or any of the other specific religious sects. From my perch high above the valley I felt no presence of danger. Nodding in relief I twisted in my saddle and looked at the heavens above and behind me. No fire-breathing Winged Beastie, the four limbed, bat-wing Dragons of legendary fame, rode the winds. Nor, thankfully, did I see the feathered magnificence of any Great Wings. Turning again to my left I scanned the gray-white haze of the towering shield wall of the High Kanris.
The High Kanris.
The unassailable rock edifice with its lofty tops crowned with glistening snow called the shield wall. The homeland for the majority of the human race. A series of mountain ranges, torturously intertwined and undulating like a pit of deadly vipers, in rugged snow capped peaks and high mountain valleys. Residing deep within the mountain ranges were a number of human kingdoms. Large and small, rich and poor, the kingdoms found refuge in those high crags. Refuge and safety from the ravages of the Dragon. It was the shield wall which provided this blanket of security.
A wall of rock, rising with a sudden explosive urge high into the heavens, encapsulated the High Kanris like the stone battlements protecting an impenetrable city. The wall towered more than nine thousand feet into the sky. Rising, like some mythical god, over the forest hills rolling country surrounding it. It was too high for a Winged Beastie to soar over. Its wall too steep and too rugged for any individual to climb. Only four major routes lead into its interior. Each route heavily guarded by warriors dedicated to keep the Dragon at bay. Because of this magnificent natural defense the Dragon found himself in a stalemate in his war against humanity. The shield wall protected Man from Dragon incursion. The stark grandeur of its immense size and stupendous height actually frightened the normally fearless spirit of our foes. The Dragon feared heights. Ancient experience and Dragon folklore told them the high country was filled with unspeakable terrors.
Only invasion by an overwhelming force of their fabled pike-wielding infantry, and hordes of fire-breathing Winged Beasties, lay open to them if they wished to continue the war. An invasion up through one of the four wide passes penetrating the wall itself. So far no Dragon clan felt compelled to attempt such an arduous task.
Or, at least, not yet.
But in the next valley not too far way lay encamped a massive Clan Hartooth army. They were, as Dragon prophecy foretold, the ones who would ultimately storm the very heights of heaven itself in their desire to eradicate humanity.
Satisfied all was well I urged my old black-winged friend to land in a small clearing below. With a swift and sudden descent Cedric spiraled down and used powerful wings to brake before setting down in the quiet clearing. Leaping from the saddle I turned and hurriedly unsaddled the black beast. It was feeding time and I could feel the hunger pains rummaging through the soul of my old friend as keenly as I could feel my own. Cedric bent his huge head down to me and gently nudged me with his hooked beak. Playfully I roughed his dark blood red feathered plume atop his head and told him not to eat too much. Stepping back I braced myself for the rush of powerful winds as the war bird launched himself back into the heavens.
The voice of a child calling. A small child, perhaps seven or eight years, her voice filled with relief and pleasure at seeing me arrive at last. Turning, I caught her just as she bounded into the air and leapt into my arms. Throwing arms around my neck she hugged me tightly and kissed me on the cheek.
“I’m happy you are here, grandfather. Especially now since so many bad people have arrived.”
Holding her in my arms I kissed her on the forehead and turned to watch the others join us. The rough pebble skin of her forehead felt odd to the touch. Especially so for a warrior-monk as I. As a Bretan monk I swore religious vows to protect Mankind against all evil. For generations that evil was defined as Dragon and the Dragon’s unquenchable thirst to destroy humanity. Yet, here I stood, holding in my arms a Dragon princess, the last surviving relative to a once powerful Dragon clan.
But in truth she was more than just a child princess. She was a Pearl Princess. The definition of Evil Incarnate in the legends and prophecies of both Dragon and Man. The last of the five promised Pearl Princesses Dragonkind would be given by the Dark Lords. With this last one preordained to unite all of the clans and make war upon Mankind for one final time.
As a warrior-monk, and as a Bretan wizard, I knew the prophecies which swirled around this child. I knew she was a creature who possessed powers far and away more superior than mine when it came to the manipulation of the Netherworld. I knew the immense gamble I took five months earlier when I agreed to take the child and raise and train her in the Bretan Way.
Any other monk would have slain the child upon first sight. A quick and efficient death and a final defeat to Dragon prophecy. But I could not. I felt her soul. My Inner Eye scanned her aura. I found no evil residing in the child. She was, five months earlier, as she was now, an innocent child being pulled and tossed about in a grand scheme of manipulation. Like a helpless child’s puppet there were powers, both Dragon and Man, who wished to control her innate abilities. And depending on which force finally won out the child would be an instrument of good or a weapon of evil.
I could not slay an innocent child. My hopes were to show her how to control her immense wizardry powers and mold her into that Netherworld force which would defy the Dragon’s Dark Lords and forever deny them their victory.
But there was a heavy price to pay in accepting this role.
Now practically every kingdom in the high country, and almost every Dragon barony, hunted us. Not all. But the vast majority did. We were outcasts. Our lives were forfeit the moment we were caught. And I, once a loyal follower of the Bretan Way, was now condemned as a Malus Apostate; a warrior-wizard of abomination. A creature who, thanks to his acquired powers, was automatically a threat to all of humanity. Every wizard from each of the religious beliefs would be hunting us. I doubted any would offer any form of mercy if, and when, they found us.
Two kinds of Dragons hunted us. One set believed in their prophecies. The child, the Fifth Sister, would grow up and acquire all her wizardry powers. She would unite all of Dragonkind and the ultimate war would be fought against humanity. So they hunted us to free her from my control. My fate, and the fate of the three others who helped me in protecting and teaching the child, were sealed. There would be no escape.
A second group of Dragons hunted us with equal intensity. They too wished to destroy us. To destroy all of us. These Dragons doubted the prophecies of the Dark Lords. Over the last few years of living alongside, and sporadically fighting the human, they had come to grudgingly accept humans for what they were. Commerce arouse between many Dragon baronies and human kingdoms. A sort of unspoken truce existed with many Dragon clans and human kingdoms. Prosperity flourished between Dragon and Man for those who chose this path. The child represented a dire threat to their prosperity. She was a symbol of old hatreds and ancient curses. She had to be destroyed.
The child was named Ursala. She was the grand daughter to a dead baron and extinct clan called the Anktooth. Her father, incredibly, was none other than the Baron Baknar Hartooth, the hereditary leader of the Clan Harktooth. Fate and destiny came together in this child’s life in a complicated weave of intrigue and black secrecy. If no one came to her rescue she would have a short life, and a horrible end, waiting for her.
I, Roland of the High Crags, chose to defy my faith, the gods, and the Netherworld itself. I chose to protect the child and make the attempt to lead her away from her terrible destiny. And a few others, through no fault of their own, chose to follow the path I now traveled as well.
Two youths, blond haired and blue eyed, tall and lanky and with that certain air which suggested each was filed with immense confidence, approached quickly. Twins, Gawaith and Gawain were nephews to a good friend of mine, a king in a doomed city called Odar’s Landing. This city was a key defenses thwarting the Dragon’s entry through one of the main passes leading into the high country. The Vik was a kingdom who defended this pass from Dragon incursion. The First Clan had invaded the lower end of the pass and pressed against the stout walls of Odair’s Landing with a huge army. The last we knew their uncle and his loyal followers still held the city. But our last word of the king’s defense came to us three months ago. Only the gods knew how he faired now.
Behind the grinning boys came the white haired, grizzled old Niscian warrior-monk who called himself Alvis Fairhands. Small and bone thin, he knew not how old he was. Ancient would be the word I would describe him. Ancient and yet very dangerous when he held a sword in his hands. He was the only warrior-monk I knew who was allowed by his religious brethren to retire from the warrior’s role. Warrior-monks never live long enough to retire. They are trained from youth, in each religious sect, to fight evil and the Dragon. Regardless of the odds. Regardless of their personal well being. Few lived past the age of forty. Fewer yet ever become warrior-wizards. None, except for the old man standing beside me, ever lived to retire.
But the Niscian was more than just a warrior-monk. He was a Null Stone as well. In the Realm of Wizardry found on my planet, a Null Stone was a very special creature. Special and rare. Our folklore tells us that a wizard’s magic ‘is in the blood.’ Not every one has the destiny to become a wizard. Only a few are born who have the natural abilities a wizard must have. Of those born with the talent, fewer yet become one. To be a wizard first you must train to be a warrior-monk. After this training you must enter the Outer Realms, the world around us as we see and feel it, and survive. If, after so long a time, the warrior-monk has survived and has shown his worthiness, and if he has the gift to become a wizard, he begins the arduous training of wizardry.
But a Null Stone is a different creature. Whereas wizards must face years of training and a lifetime worth of trying to control the powers given to him, a Null Stone is just the opposite. A true Null Stone is someone with the gift of shutting off the Netherworld and its addictive powers. A wizard cannot use his powers against a Null Stone. They are, in effect, like a bucket of water thrown onto a smoldering fire. Their powers extinguish any and all magic.
Alvis Fairhands was such a creature. A human Null Stone of great power. He was here because I had the need for him to curb, or silence, the child’s powerful mind. Poor Ursala, as the Pearl Princess she was, instinctively commanded more magic naturally than most wizards ever acquire through vigorous training. But so untrained the child radiated her presence in the Netherworld like some powerful beacon throwing out a beam of light in the darkest of nights. Every moment of her existence was felt by those who knew of the Netherworld.
Wizards could feel her power. And through her so too could they feel mine. She not only radiated her immense power but somehow also augmented mine and made it stronger. No matter where we traveled our presence was know to others. Our foes hunted us. In the distance I could feel the presence of wizards searching. But so far Alvis’ talent as a Null Stone was masking the child’s mind and diffusing her powers enough to momentarily hide our presence. It would not last long.
“Master, we are happy to see you! It’s been a week since we parted.” Gawaith muttered, gripping his short horn bow in one hand and nodding his head, “We have venison cooking over a spit and Master Fairhands has found some wild piqut as well.”
Piqut was a melon which grew late in the summer all the way through to the first heavy snow fall. It tasted sweet and was juicy. In this valley it was plentiful.
“We have seen no one in the past week, Master. Not even a flock of wild Great Wings,” Gawain put in, grinning and holding a bow as well, “But lots of fresh game in this valley. We could stay here all winter and never worry about feeding ourselves.”
When one spoke the other had to say something as well. Exact twins, the boys were barely old enough to begin training as a warrior. In a fair world they would reach the age of perhaps fifteen or sixteen and then begin the hard training of a Great Wing rider. But this was not a fair world. Their fates had been thrust upon them by a Dragon clan bent on destroying their homelands. In an effort to save them there uncle, King Olaf, asked me to take them with the princess and I as we fled up into the high country.
Now they too were being hunted relentlessly, their destinies so closely woven into mine.
“We cannot stay here for the winter,” the old Niscian grunted, shaking his head. “This valley is too near often traveled paths. Sooner or later someone would find us. We need to move on. Find a more remote place to hide ourselves.”
There was a reason why I led us to this valley. A reason I did not share with the others. A reason which had nothing to do with the Dragon army so near. Yet, in its own way, compounding the need for our presence here.
“In the next valley I found a large Clan Hartooth army encampment. Perhaps thirty thousand Dragon pike and perhaps twenty or so Winged Beasties and their riders. They have settled in for the winter. I found them when I discovered a lone Hartooth and his Winged Beastie riding the winds. A courier bringing news to the Hartooth commander. Bearing terrible news. More come this spring. Thousands more.”
The twins glanced at each other, the color in their cheeks fading, their eyes growing serious as the returned their gaze toward me. The old Niscian, frowning, only grunted and waited for me to continue.
“I have no idea why they are there. The Clan Malawei are no threat to them. In the past the Malawei have gone a separate way from the majority of Dragonkind. They trade with the various kingdoms close to there and have agreed not to wage war on anyone as long as no one warred against them.”
“Perhaps Hartooth gold has persuaded them to join them,” the old monk grunted, frowning and looking grim.
“Perhaps,” I nodded, thinking over the possibility, “But I doubt it. The Malawei and the Anktooth were distant relatives. It is more likely the Hartooth, in their drive to remove their enemies from the field, have decided to remove the Malawei as well.”
“You mean extermination,” Fairhands answered, half turning to view off into the distance toward the Malawei’s lands, “Can they face the threat and survive?”
I shook my head. Ursala squirmed in my arms, frowned in displeasure, but kissed me again on the cheek and asked if I had anything sweet to eat. Smiling, from within my livery I pulled out a piece of hard candy. She let out a chirp and reached for it with both hands at once. Squirming out of my arms she beamed up at me as she turned and went racing off toward the camp site.
All of us were smiling as we watched the child. But each of us were deep into our own thoughts. I could feel the overall sense of depression creeping into their souls. Another Dragon clan, fiercely independent and proud, yet small and without the resources to face the stronger opponent, were about to be swallowed up by the Hartooth.
“Is there anything we can do to help them?” Gawain asked quietly.
“Yes! We must warn them! Tell them to flee and save themselves!” Gawaith added.
“Bah!” snapped Fairhands angrily, glaring at the boys, “Where would they go? To the north into the steppes? There is nothing there but wind swept grasslands and emptiness. Should they travel east or west? That means invading the small kingdoms the Malawei have tried so hard to live alongside in peace and prosperity. There is no place for them to go. Their valley is their home. No one, no Dragon nor Man, would voluntarily leave their homes and their lands. Not without a fight. Not while one last warrior yet stood defiant against his enemy. Bah! The Malawei are dead already. There is nothing we can do but mourn for them.”
The faces of the twins sent pangs of guilt through my soul. Both lads looked as if they had been thoroughly beaten with a stout cane. From their hearts I felt a sense of outrage and anger. Helpless to intercede in any way, the only thing they could do was to stand back and do nothing. I felt the same way. Yet the words of the old Niscian rang true.
“We can at least bring word to them of the threat the face,” I said, trying in a meager way, to breathe some form of hope into the souls of the twins. “I will approach the Malawei tomorrow. They will then have the option to chose their own fate. It is the only option left to us.”
“Humph!” snorted the dour faced old warrior-monk, frowning as he turned to walk back to our camp.
“Lads, go attend to little Ursala. I feel she is, like you, upset over the Hartooth’s presence so close to us.”
Nodding, and knowing more was unsaid than said, the boys grinned as they turned and trotted off to join tiny Ursala. Alvis watched the boys leave for a moment or two and then turned to peer at me, his eyes narrowed quizzically.
“We are in need of a second Null Stone, old man.”
He nodded in agreement but remained silent.
“Her powers grow and threaten to overwhelm you, and me, if we do not bring her in control.”
The old Niscian nodded again.
“Not too far from here is the monastery of St. Rolla. There lives a very powerful Null Stone whom I know quite well.”
“Yes, I have heard of this monk. But it is a dangerous move, Bretan. Very dangerous. Your brothers hunt you and the one you wish to contact would be the most dangerous of them all.”
I nodded. The Niscian’s words were true. Master Breen would be the one warrior whom I might have feared the most. He was not a warrior-monk. But his skills with weapons was beyond doubt. He was not a wizard. But his abilities as a Null Stone were known to have sucked the wizardry out of the most powerful of wizards known. No. It was not those skills which made me look upon this Man as a potential, and deadly, foe.
“You are aware as to why your brothers so honor this warrior?”
“Yes. I have known for quite some time now. Long after I left St. Rolla, and his tutorship and entered the Outer Realms.”
“Humph!” snorted the old Niscian, nodding in understanding, “It makes sense. The Bretan would wish to keep this Man’s true talents as secret as possible. His occupation goes against everything they claim to believe and preach.”
“Sadly true, old man. But is it not true for the others as well? Is there not a need for such a talent? We live in a world full of deception and intrigue.”
“Yes,” the old Man nodded, smiling grimly, “The most powerful of Null Stones groomed to be the ultimate assassin; an assassin of wizards. Who would expect this from the Bretan?”
I nodded smiling ruefully.