Our destinies are not written in stone.
But forces unseen do tap upon its
Hard surface with the deft
touch of a master stonemason.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
“Are you ready, child?”
She looked at me, biting excitedly on one small finger and eyes bright with anticipation, and nodded. Still a small child. Small and naive and fragile to the appearance. Yet so deceiving. Ursala the child was also Ursala, the Fifth Sister. Even now her Netherworld powers almost exceeded my simple wizard’s command. She was almost as powerful as the Abbess of Hahnoor. Soon she would surpass all of us. Soon she would be the most powerful creature the world had ever seen when it came to commanding the powers of the Netherworld. If the Netherworld corrupted her–if her immortal soul fell into the abyss of insanity which enticed everyone who held its power–she would be unstoppable. She would become the weapon foretold by grim prophecy.
Only the mystical powers of Helshvingar held the key in defeating her. If its powers could be unleashed. If . . . .
“Very well, let us begin.”
There was this sensation of immense speed–of falling–of wind blowing fiercely past my face and tugging at my long hair. Suddenly we stopped. I felt my feet land on something smooth and hard. I heard the silence. We were back in a familiar place. Emptiness all around. As far as the eye could see in this part of our artificial training area, nothing discernible could be seen. A flat, slate gray floor as smooth as glass lay at my feet. The sensation of immense space above and around me filled every pore. There was no sky. Only a grayish white emptiness. There was no wind. No sun. No trees. No hills. Only emptiness. Turning, I looked behind me and then in front of me waiting for Ursula to build her mental defenses. I expected massive wall of stone to appear momentarily. Walls impossible high and impossibly thick. Walls so strong no amount of battering through the use of raw energy would ever penetrate. But nothing appeared. The vastness of eerie silence and emptiness stretched on and on into eternity.
A smile played across my lips as I continued to examine the space around me. A smile of pleasure. A smile of satisfaction. Ursula was learning. She was adapting. Throwing up something completely unexpected. Nodding, I turned when I heard a soft sound behind me.
She stood only a few hundred yards from me. Standing seemingly alone. Defenseless. Just a tiny object surrounded by . . . nothing. The smile on my lips widened. She would not be defenseless. What seemed apparent was not what it truly was. The simplicity of her defenses unseen was subtly clever. Devilishly intricate. I knew she had had help in devising this . . . what ever this was.
Do you see me, grandfather?
Her voice filled my mind. Excited. Determined. Eager to test her new creation.
I do, little one. Are you sure you wish to continue? Perhaps you would like additional time to build a wall, or a moat? Or perhaps conjure up fierce monsters to hurl against me?
Her child’s laughter was music to my soul. She was happy. Filled with joy. Very proud of her new creation. She jumped up and down several times, holding her hands close to her and clapping eagerly to begin. And faintly—every so faintly—I felt the presence of others near by. Near by and watching. Observing. They wished to remain hidden. I felt their confidence they had hidden themselves adequately enough. Five separate creatures I felt. All female. All Dragon.
Ursala’s four sisters hovered near. The fifth was an older Ursala. An Ursala from another dimension. The Ursala we had talked to weeks before when the child had taken me, the Mauk and the Niscian abbot Constantine Marcellus into the Netherworld. From this older Ursala I felt a sense of wariness. Of concern. She was not here to gloat. She was here for another reason. I felt a sense of fear–a sense of fear for the child and for—me.
A soft grunt of surprise escaped from my lips as I turned and faced the child.
I’m ready, grandfather! Attack whenever you’re ready!
With a sudden movement I threw a hand up and waved it before me. Instantly a hundred Rolands appeared, swords drawn, and charged the small child. Screaming at the top of their voices the hurled themselves in a solid wall toward her. The collective roar of a hundred voices roaring in rage unnerving to endure! The child’s face turned from glee and anticipation to a flash of fear as she staggered back one or two steps. But the roar and flash of brilliant white light, along with the strong aroma of sulphur and burnt flesh, made me even step back and cringe in pain.
A curtain of white hot energy–a hundred times hotter than the hottest fire known– engulfed all the Rolands rushing toward the child. The sharp hiss and crackle of pure energy reacting to something being thrown into its invisible grip filled my ears. Billowing blue-gray smoke, fed by the winds of a hurricane, engulfed us and hid everything from view.
For several minutes the smoke and the foul smell of sulphur and burnt flesh engulfed all. Powerful winds continued to howl yet the smoke seem to be limitless. Eventually the winds began to die down and the smoke began to lessen. Soon images began to appear. Grim images of the hundreds of my Rolands lying on the slate gray stone burnt and twisted into horrible caricatures of what they once where.
The cry of her child’s voice was filled with terror. The anguish in her voice enough to tug at my soul. But in that one moment of dropping her guard I felt the invisible barriers around her lessen in intensity. Cracks developed in the screen. Cracks small enough for me to slip through. Hidden in the Cloak of Invisibility I scurried down the narrow channels tunneling through the still powerful shield. Entering inside her zone of safety I caught her up in my arms as she raced toward the charred and smoking forms behind us and laughed as I kissed her on the forehead. Wiping tears from her cheeks I kissed her again and hugged her.
Ursala, child. Where did you learn this trick? Invisible shields? Surely someone must have helped you.
Grandfather! You are not harmed!
The look of relief on her tiny face was enough to make me feel ashamed for the trick I had played on her. She threw tiny arms around me and hugged me tightly, her cheek pressing against my chest. For a few seconds she held on tight. And then she pushed herself away and looked up at me with the face of an angry child.
Grandfather, why did you scare me like that? I thought I had seriously harmed you!
But you didn’t, little one. I tricked you because there was a lesson you had to learn. Do you know what lesson?
Her soft dragon eyes looked into my face intently for a heart beat or two and then she nodded her head. And like a fresh cool breeze arising and cooling a fevered brow the anger left her and she smiled.
A Bretan lesson, grandfather. One that you always mention to me.
I nodded, smiling in pleasure
Which one is that?
The saying, ‘The world that we see, and the world that we should know, are two different worlds indeed.’
The world holds many secrets, Ursala” I nodded, smiling. What we see is not always what is truly real. Sometimes what looks so real and beautiful are but images used to deceive us. Or to terrify us. Our senses and emotions left unchecked can be our worst enemies. We cannot allow anyone to control us through the manipulation of either.
I kissed her forehead again and smiled. She smiled and snuggled up closer to me and placed her head against my chest. With a father’s gentleness I held her for a few moments and felt a warmth in my soul rarely felt before. The warmth seemed to radiate from the center of my soul outward in every direction. A wonderful sensation of compassion and love.
Ursala pulled herself away and removed her arms from around my neck and looked down at her feet. Smiling with a father’s patience I suspected I knew what she was going to say.
Grandfather, I have a confession to make. I . . . I have tried to trick you in here.
Oh? How so?
I . . . I . . . asked my sisters and another of me to come here and see my new powers. I’ve hidden them from your view, grandfather. I did so because I did not want you to get angry at them. Or at me.
Sitting on my knee she stared down at her hands lying on her lap, a look of contrite anguish on her pretty young face. I smiled and kissed her gently on the top of her head.
Are your guests still here?
She nodded and continued to stare at her hands. I chuckled and gently lifted her off my knee and stood up.
Tell them to show themselves, Ursala.
There was a rustling of wind which tugged at me slightly and then, hovering behind the child, four shimmering mists appeared just as the jingle of steel and the strain of a leather jerkin worn by a warrior sounded from behind me. Glancing over my shoulder I smiled and nodded at the fully grown Ursala.
Above the child were the spectral souls of Ursala’s direct kin. Four of the five promised Pearl Princesses. Each a creature as powerful as the fully grown Ursala behind me when it came to the manipulation of Netherworld magic. Each a creature who apparently had died thanks to a swordsman wielding Helshvingar riding at my side—that swordsman, these creatures had told me over and over–being me.
Pilgrim, I will readily admit, I felt unease facing the Four Sisters as these nebulous creatures were often referred as. Felt unease not so much for the immense Netherworld powers each commanded but because of who they were and how they died. They had died from my hand. Died a long time ago. Died from my hand gripping Helshvingar. First the bronze hued blade cut down Morgana far in the dim past after she had given the Dragon the gift of lifting themselves on two feet and stepping out of the swamps. Then the bronze blade dipped into the blood of Llasha after she had taught the Dragon to build with stone and forge weapons out of iron. Afterward the blood–with me wielding the sword’s magical power as I had done with the previous two–flowed from the body of Mojhana after she had taught the Dragon how to wage war like humans waged war. Finally, almost a thousand years ago, it sipped the black blood of Kharina the regal one, after she had united the Dragon clans under the banners of the Clan Hartooth and swept away the human kingdoms which had once thrived in the grasslands and forests beneath the High Kanris.
All of these creatures–Morgana, Lhasha, Mojhana and Kharina–I destroyed using the cutting edge of Helshvingar. Far back into the dim history of man and dragon the sword and I had been the bringer of death to these four creatures. Yet it could not be. I knew how old I was. Kharina, the last to fall before me, died long before I was born. Long before the first true Bretan wizard ever existed.
I trembled at what their deaths at my hand suggested. Trembled at the vastness and complexity of the Netherworld and its supernatural power. At the thought that over and over again I would be reborn to fight their evil. Reborn again and again without end. To forever fight that which hid itself from all view, the viper I called the Evil From Afar. The one who wished to control the River of Time flowing within the Netherworld.
There had to be a way to break this endless cycle. To forge a new beginning. To send dragon and man off onto a new path which might give them a better tomorrow. Yet, as I stood, arms folded and eyeing the Four Sisters dancing in the air over and slightly behind tiny Ursala, I trembled at what I might have to do in order to find that new path. The four had even hinted to me the path had to take. I had to enter the Netherworld. I had to summon up the far past. I had to find out the true cause which had brought on these forever war between dragon and man. I had to, in this journey, discover the true power of Helshvingar. By going into the far past was the only way to make these discoveries.
And they had laughed at me. Called me coward . . . laughed in my face because they knew I wished not to take this long and dangerous journey. They were convinced I would not–as I had not over and over before.
They knew me well, these four witches. They knew me all too well.
Well, man-thing! I see your powers grow whenever you stand near the child. Eh, sisters?
I recognized Lhasha and her mocking whine as her spirit circled around me at a safe distance before returning to hover near her sisters.
Lhasha, say no more. You speak before you think. A weakness you have always shown and that was your downfall. Say no more.
Kharina–the one who sounded like a queen and who never approached. Her voice had the steel hardened edge of command. Yet I sensed something else, something . . . uncertain and cautious . . . whenever she was in my presence. A something I could never get a hint of what it might be.
What is that thing doing in our realm!
Morgana’s seductive growl hissed angrily as her white veil of a form slid over to hover near the grown Ursala.
It is forbidden for creatures of different time-lines to enter our own. You know this, child. You’ve been told over and over not to do this. Yet you persist! Child, I think you should be punished. Punished severely. What say you, sisters? Is this not the time to finally show our sister what pain truly is?
Behind me I felt a rush of Netherworld power gathering. Concentrating. The grown Ursala was about to let lose with a burst of magic which would be devastating to all. Half turning I lifted a hand up in a small gesture and smiled at the lovely creature before turning to face Kharina.
This is neither our realm nor her’s. This place resides in the Netherworld. Ursala grown has not defied any forbidden teachings. I said firmly.
So it seems, man-thing. But child, you play with forces you cannot control. This is your weakness. Unlimited confidence in your abilities. It may very well prove to be your downfall. Soon you will pay a price for your deeds. A price which will be costly to you. Sisters! Come! We will leave these creatures to themselves. The Master stirs and I wish not to be too far from him when he awakens.
They left in the blinking of an eye. Turning, I eyed the grown Ursala, noting the look of distaste on her face, and then turned and gazed at the child. She too had a frown on her tiny lips. But more than a frown. A scowl. A look of someone both angry and confused. Kharina’s words–her warning of price to be paid–clearly affected the child Ursala. Angered she was to be threatened so by her kinsmen. Confused in that she wondered what terrible deed she had committed to warrant such a threat.
I started to turn and gently probe the child to reveal me her emotions. But the warrior beside me of the grown Ursala reached out and touched me on the arm.
Roland, we must speak.
There was a note in her voice . . . a voice so much like the child I knew yet deeper and filled with more authority . . . which made me pause and look at her. In this Ursala’s eyes were burning embers of concern. On her face were the lines of worry around the edges of her almond shaped eyes.
The currents in the River of Time, warrior. They curl and thrash about. They do not flow and blend with other currents as they normally do. They act as if a great disturbance is about to take place.
Deep and complex were the currents in the River of Time. Each current was the time-line of a soul–the soul of the present, the same soul from the past–and the one which was to come in the future. Billions. . . nay, more like hundreds of trillions of these currents–the currents of all the life forms in all the many realities which made up the Netherworld–made up the River of Time. Always there were localized eddies and whirlpools which might disturb a number of currents. But rarely did an event happen where the entire River of Time seemed to be profoundly affected.
The source of this disturbance? I asked.
There is no way to know, the grown Ursala answered, shaking her head. All I can tell you is that somewhere in your reality the disturbance begins and then radiates outward to affect the river’s entire flow. But it does seem to be centered around you, warrior. You and the Abbes of Hahnoor.
Morisha! shouted the child excitedly, turning and running toward us, her face bright with excitement. You have met my cousin Morisha?
Cold were the icy fingers of dread which reached up from out of the Netherworld and
griped my soul.