Monday, December 22, 2014

Reintroducing yourself to old friends

I may have shared this short story before.  Hamm and Beans.  Two homicide detectives who are, shall we say, perfectly matched for each other.  In a twisted, psychotic, morbidly droll kind of way.

The idea was to write a decent mystery story and yet, somehow, throw a little humor into it.  So along comes Detectives Marissa Hamm and Mike Bean.  One's a shrew.  The other is a certifiable slob.  To tell you the truth, I kinda like these two people.  Both of them are socially inept.  Each is carrying a bag of emotional problems no one knows about. But, still . . . they're kinda interesting. (On a side bar, isn't interesting how . . . sometimes . . . characters fully developed just pop into a writer's head ready to go.  All you have to do is plug them into a story.)

I haven't done anything fresh with Hamm and Bean recently.  And maybe I won't ever.  Still, it's fun going back and reintroducing yourself to old friends again.

Hope you like it.  And maybe, if the moment strikes you, you might tell me if Marissa and Mike should be revived and pushed into some new stories again.

Hamm and Bean

She looked up from her desk and saw the lieutenant standing in the door space of his little cubicle looking at her.  A hand came up and he used a finger to silently summons her to enter his den. 
            And then he turned and glared at Detective Sergeant Mike Bean.  That same long, bony, pasty colored finger of his made the same silent summons.  She watched the big bear of a man push his chair back, throw the pen he had been using down angrily on his desk and scowl.  But he came to his feet and start lumbering toward the lieutenant's office.
            Detective Sergeant Mike Bean was a slob.  There was no other way to put it.  Over weight, going bald, with beady little eyes.  His suit looked like it hadn't been cleaned and pressed for at least a month.  In fact it looked like Bean had been sleeping in it for about that length of time.  His shirt had coffee stains around the navel area.  The knot to his tie was pulled down low. There was tomato sauce  dotting the tie's length like tiny red pimples on a teenager's face.  His shoes hadn't seen a swipe of polish since Kennedy was in office.  Bean was the kind of cop everyone wanted to shy away from.  He was jinxed.  Detectives assigned to him as his partner had a way of getting shot.  Most survived and retired from the force.  A few hadn't been so lucky.
            Bean, for his part, glanced to his right and looked at the tall, flat figured frame of Detective Sergeant Marissa Hamm.  All legs.  Bony arms.  Flat chested and flaming red hair that fell down past her shoulders.  Wore a dress like it was a discarded cement sack. The face wasn't too bad . . . if you had knocked back six or seven beers.  She was walking toward the lieutenant's office as well--and that didn't sit too well with him.  Hamm had the reputation of being a piranha in the department.  Chewed up and spit out partners in the Homicide division like they were sour gumballs.  Wasn't a cop--male or female--in the entire city who wanted to work with her.
            "It's been decided.  You two are, as of today, partners," the gray faced, slightly stooping but tall lieutenant of detectives said as the two walked past him.
            "Jesus Christ!  You're kidding me!" Hamm hissed, angrily looking at the lieutenant.
            "What the hell?!  Who was the idiot who came up with this hair brained idea!" Bean spit out venomously looking as angry as Hamm.
            "I'm the idiot who made the decision," the lieutenant answered quietly as he folded arms across his chest and glared at the two.  "Both of you shut up and listen.  This isn't a fucking request.   You two don't have a say in this.  It's either this or I transfer the two of you to administrative staff jobs downtown.  I'm not going to do that.  Not yet, at least.  I need detectives.  Good detectives.  And as much as it hurts me to say this, you two aren't too bad at doing your job.  When your sober that is . . . Mike.  Or when you're tongue isn't slicing people's egos up like raw Pastrami . . . Marissa."
            "But lieutenant . . . !"
            "Didn't I tell you to keep quiet, Mike?  Shut . . .  up.  There are no ands and buts about this.  You two are a team.  You want to kill each other that's okay by me.  It'll be a little extra paperwork if you do it on company time--but that's just more paperwork.  I can handle it.  But the reality is this.  Neither of you two will be missed in the department.  Both of you are about as likable as two anemic Cobras fighting over the same dead mouse.  No one wants to be around you.  No one wants to work with you.  In a sane world I would have taken your badges months ago and told you to get the hell out of my precinct.  But this city's got a crime wave going on and I can't afford not having you two work together.  So that's it!  End of discussion.   You are partners . . . now take this file and go find the bastard who did this!  Get out . . . . now."
            Both of them glared angrily at their lieutenant but kept quiet.  Mike Bean shook his head in disgust, shot a loathing glance at his new partner, and turned and reached for the door handle.
            "I'm driving," Marissa Hamm said with a mean, sarcastic grin on her plain face.
            "Like hell you are," scowled her partner and shaking his head.  "It'll be a cold day in hell before I let you get behind a steering wheel!"
            When the arrived in front of the small ranch style home out in the suburbs Marissa Hamm opened the car door and slid out from behind the steering wheel--a pleased smirk on his colorless lips.  Her partner rolled out of the passenger seat and slammed the door shut so hard the big Crown Victoria rocked back and forth several times before coming to a halt.
            "The next time you play a trick on my like that again, Hamm " he began, lifting a big fleshy brick for a fist up to his chest and shaking it a couple of times warningly.  "I swear I'm gonna tap you a good one."
            "Ya big dope," Hamm grinned sarcastically "Don't lay the keys down on the booking desk and tell me you're gonna take a piss before we leave the precinct house.  It was like stealing candy from a baby."
            Bean started to say something but turned as a patrol officer came toward them with a small spiral notebook in hand and looking at it intently.
            "Sergeants . . . the body's clear to be examined.  Forensics just finished up."
            "Whose dead?" both detectives said at the same time--like an echo chamber--glaring at each other in the process.
            "The dead guy is Ralph Edwards.  A banker.  Someone plugged him in the forehead with a big caliber gun.  Close range apparently.  There's burn marks all over the man's face.  The bullet exited and went through a window somewhere that away.  Haven't found it yet."
            "Any witnesses?" Bean snapped.
            "Who discovered the body?" Hamm snapped.
            "No to the first question.  And his wife answers the second question." the uniformed officer replied, grinning as he looked up at the two detectives.  "So it finally happened, huh?"
            "What happened?" Hamm and Bean shot back simultaneously.
            "The lieutenant.  He went and did it.  Put you two together.  Geez!  Sergeant Loomis is going to be one happy dude."
            Both detectives frowned.  The young kid for a patrol officer grinned even wider.
            "We started a pool about a month ago.  Each threw in ten bucks and picked a date when the lieutenant would bite the bullet and put you two together.  I think Sergeant Loomis is a couple of thousand smackers richer!"
            "That sounds like gambling, Hamm." Bean growled menacingly as he half turned toward his partner.
            "That's what it sounds like to me, Bean.  Corruption in the department.  Wonder what the mayor would say if he heard about this?"
            The patrol officer wiped the grin off his face as he snapped the small notebook in his hand closed, turned on a heel, and moved away from the two detectives slightly slower than a dead run.  Hamm and Bean watched the young officer disappear around a corner of the house, deadly little smirks on their lips.
            "The little wimp," Bean muttered,
            "Snotty nosed little bastard," Hamm said.
            Mike Bean turned and looked at his new partner and scowled.
            "You gotta have the last word every time I say something?  Is that the way it's gonna be?"
            "Does shit stink?" she asked, the smirk on her lips widening.
            He grinned . . . almost laughed . . . as he turned and headed for the house.
            The same old routine.  A grieving wife.  A despondent teen age son.  Several thousand dollars in jewelry missing  And wet paint on the driveway.
            "Wet paint," Hamm said as she sat on her haunches sticking a finger in the wet goop.
            "No shit, Sherlock!" Bean answered, bending over to make the appearance of looking at the wet paint.  But looking at the exposed thighs and pink underwear of his partner instead.
            "Bean!  Stop staring at my panties and get that tongue back into mouth before you bite it off!"  she hissed, standing up and straightening her dress at the same time.
            "Did you notice the house is half painted?" he asked, standing up as well and throwing a thumb back toward the house.
            "Yes," she nodded, glancing at the house.  "Did you get a name?"
            "Sure," he nodded, grinning and holding up a business card.  "Two guys I know from way back.  Guys who used to rob houses when they were in their teens."
            "I'm driving," Hamm said, turning on a heel and walking toward the Crown Vic.
            "Like hell you are.  My ulcers can take only so much of your driving.  Give me the keys, Hamm!"
            "Bite me," detective Marissa Hamm said with a smile on her face as she unlocked the Crown Vic.
            The two painters were cousins.  Stole together.  Served time together.  Came out of prison and started painting houses for a living.  Stayed honest until they got to the banker's house and found fifty thousand dollars of jewelry just lying out in the open waiting to be snatched.  Problem was the banker came home unexpectedly.  One of the cousins pulled a gun.  The gun went off.   Drilled the banker in the forehead.  Sheer accident.  The kid didn't think it was loaded.
            "Good job, you two.  You survived the first day," the lieutenant said, smirking, arms folded across the chest as he heard their report. "Go home and get some rest.  Stay sober for once, Mike.  Don't eat any children alive, Marissa.  See you two tomorrow."
            The two walked out of the lieutenant's office and stopped.  The squad room was empty.  Small fans on the desks of the detectives were humming quietly in the silence.  The two stared at their desks and then looked at each other.
            "Going home?" Hamm asked quietly.
            "Naw," Bean said, shaking his head.  "Thought I'd go and knock back a couple of beers over at Wally's."
            Marissa Hamm said nothing as she nodded and looked down at the floor.  Bean, frowning, sighed and shook his head in disgust..
            "You drink beer?"
            "Uh huh," nodded Hamm.
            "Really?  I thought you preferred chilled strychnine.  Or maybe molten lava," he said, heading for the stairs.
            "The only question I want answered," Hamm said, following Bean down the stairs loudly. "Is whether you're going to slid under the table after the third or fourth beer.  I heard two was your limit."
            Mike Bean grinned.  Grinned and looked over his shoulder at his new partner.  Hell.  Maybe this would work after all.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Richard Godwin has Confessions Of A Hit Man

Richard Godwin has a new novel out.  Called Confessions Of A Hit Man.  If you know, or have read some of his work, you know this guy writes a taut, well researched, gripping tale of darkness and suspense.  So, when I finally get my hands on this novel, I expect to be kept glued to the text from page one all the way to the end.

I've invited Richard to use this blog and say a few things about both himself and his new book.  It's always interesting to read how a writer comes up with his ideas for a new book.  So we have that.  We also have his bio as well listing his complete works.

If you haven't read anything of Richard's, now is the time to rectify error in your reading selections.  Trust me.  You won't be disappointed.

So without further fanfare, here we go.

Confessions Of A Hit Man is my most mainstream commercial novel. Here’s the Blurb:
Confessions of a Hit Man is a high octane thriller with a plot that adds velocity like a well-oiled chicane. When ex-Royal Marine Jack becomes a paid assassin, work comes easily, especially when working for the Sicilian Mafia, until he gets drawn into a government plot selling enriched plutonium to a rogue Nation.
But it is also more subtle than that, in it I look at the world of espionage and the eminence grise that controls operation the general public has no knowledge of. One reviewer has picked Up on this and incisively written of the double who surrounds Jack:
‘From the first, Jack, with his Royal Marine training, is brilliant at his job of tracking, approaching, ingratiating himself with, and finally killing his targets. He also acquires a double, a shadow self, which escapes from his mirror and becomes him. That in itself is a fascinating literary device. With each new adventure, “the line of barbed wire stretched its way round my life like a shadow. You can hardly read this without rooting for Jack. Or is Jack’s double, that absorbs him so completely that he stops talking about his double?
Throughout the novel, Jack (he hides his name even from his girlfriend) takes orders from a shadowy figure, immaculately dressed, smooth spoken, a kind of autodidact, with a bottomless pit of money. This man stands beyond the sociopathic billionaires, elected officials, arms dealers, the Deep State itself, and behind Jack (who stops talking about his double halfway through the book) . Who is this guy? Who is Jack?’
Professor Jay Gertzman.
Confessions Of A Hit Man is both a narrative about the world of espionage that encompasses us all but also what that world of the double entails.
It is available here in the US
And here in the UK        

 Richard Godwin is the author of critically acclaimed novels Apostle Rising, Mr. Glamour, One Lost Summer, Noir City, Meaningful Conversations and Confessions Of A Hit Man.

He is also a published poet and a produced playwright. His stories have been published in numerous paying magazines and over 34 anthologies, among them The Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime and The Mammoth Book Of Best British Mystery, alongside Lee Child, published by Constable & Robinson, as well as the anthology of his stories, Piquant: Tales Of The Mustard Man, published by Pulp Metal Fiction in February 2012. 

Apostle Rising, published by Black Jackal Books in June 2011, is a dark work of fiction exploring the blurred line between law and lawlessness and the motivations that lead men to kill. It digs into the scarred soul of a cop in the hunt for a killer who has stepped straight from a nightmare into the waking world. It is available here. It has sold foreign rights in Hungary, to Alexandra, translated as A Romlas Labirintusa; in Italy, to Lite Editions, translated as L’Apostolo; and in Slovenia, to be published in late 2014 by Artizan Press.

Mr. Glamour, published by Black Jackal Books in Aril 2012, is about a world of wealthy, beautiful people who can buy anything, except safety from the killer in their midst. It is about two scarred cops who are driven to acts of darkness by the investigation. As DCI Jackson Flare and DI Mandy Steele try to catch the killer they find themselves up against a wall of secrecy. And the killer is watching everyone. It is available here. It has sold foreign rights to Italy and France, to be translated early 2015 by MeMe.

One Lost Summer, published by Black Jackal Books in June 2013, is a Noir story of fractured identity and ruined nostalgia. It is a psychological portrait of a man who blackmails his beautiful next door neighbour into playing a deadly game of identity. It is available here.
Noir City, published by Atlantis in June 2014, is about dangerous gigolo Paris Tongue, who seduces the wife of a Mafia boss and is hunted across Europe by hit men. It is available here .
It will be translated into Italian in 2015.
Meaningful Conversations, published by Noir Nation in 2014, is a Noir novel about a well-adjusted psychopath. Bertrand Mavers is a professional cellist who is resisting a control programme through the use of artistic paradigms, he is also abducting people and building a body at The Farm. It is available here.

Confessions Of A Hit Man, published by MeMe in July 2014, is a high octane thriller with a plot that the velocity like a well-oiled chicane. When ex-Royal Marine Jack becomes a paid assassin, work comes easily, especially when working for the Sicilian Mafia, until he gets drawn into a government plot selling enriched plutonium to a rogue Nation. It is available here. It is being simultaneously published in English and Italian October 2015.

Richard Godwin was born in London and obtained a BA and MA in English and American Literature from King's College London, where he also lectured.

You can find out more about him at his website , where you can also read his Chin Wags At The Slaughterhouse, his highly popular and unusual interviews with other authors.                               

Monday, November 24, 2014

The master, Les Edgerton, returns

You're a writer.  Stories pop into your head.  But exactly . . . just how do they pop into your head?  Where do they come from?  The ideas . . . do they come fully formed?  Complete?  Or are they tiny little icky hatch lings that require nourishment so they can grow and blossom out into fully developed, gleaming examples of pure intellectual thought.

The Man himself, Les Edgerton
I dunno.  They come.  They go.  Some have a sticky backing so that, when they pop up, they slam into the brain like a brick thrown through a plate glass window and stick forever.  Some are covered in slimy green gooey stuff.  They hit the brain pane, seem a bit interesting, and then slide off into into the subconscious void never to be seen or heard from again.

Les Edgerton, a writer of some considerable talent, and one who . . . let's face it . . . has a rather colorful background to draw from, has a new one out called The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping.  He was gracious enough to write up a little piece explaining this very phenomena on how one gets a handle on writing a novel.  Thought you might be interested looking it over.


This has long been my favorite of all the books I’ve written. It began as a short story of the same name that The South Carolina Review published years ago. Soon after that, I wrote this novel, based on the short story and then I wrote a screenplay of the same title which was named a finalist in both the Writer’s Guild and Best of Austin competitions.

I wrote it because I simply went back to my initial roots as a writer. To those days as a kid when I wrote simply to entertain and get a laugh from readers. Some of the books I’ve written, while fun to write, were drop-dead serious and Kidnapping was simply a return to the joy of writing and watching the reader’s face for signs of a smile or a laugh. And, I was fortunate to gain those kinds of responses with this book.

The germ of the idea for it came when I was in perhaps the dullest period of my life. When I was selling life insurance and trying to become what’s called “a solid citizen.” Yuch… One of the first things I learned from my boss was a term insurance folks call “the million dollars on the kitchen table.” It refers to the mindset that most folks have when they’re being sold a policy. The million dollar policy is just an abstract figure and it’s a goal for salesmen to move as many of those as possible. The guy sitting across from them usually doesn’t have a clue what a million dollars actually is. It’s just a number to them. When you can convey the image of an actual million dollars sitting on the kitchen table to them rather than just an abstract figure, that’s when you make the sale.

Well, I started thinking about that in terms of a kidnapping. What I came up with was that when the ‘nappers snatch the wife and ask for a million dollars, it’s just a number and the husband is fully prepared to pay it and get wifey back. But… and there’s the big BUT I came up with that signaled the birth of this novel—when the guy withdraws the million dollars from his bank and it’s sitting on the kitchen table just before it gets stuffed into the suitcase or whatever—it suddenly becomes very real to him. It’s no longer an abstract number—it’s a MILLION FUCKING DOLLARS! And, that’s when he calls the cops and the fibbies in on the deal. Suddenly, he realizes just how much a million bucks really is and while he of course dearly loves his snatched loved one… he also realizes how much he also dearly loves his frickin’ million dollars. Maybe even a tech more than he really loves his wife… Ask any FBI agent—I think they’ll attest to this happening. Of course, hubby denies this to himself. He’ll justify calling in the law because he now thinks that they have the best chance of getting the wife back. In his heart of hearts, he knows that if he just paid the dough he’d get the wife back most likely. Only it’s his heart of hearts that he studiously avoids going to during this period.

Does this say something about true love? You bet your bippy it does! It says something about our real
natures most of us don’t ever want to admit. And, it’s this realization that my character Tommy LeClerc realizes. Although he’s a smarmy little worm, with little redeeming characteristics, Tommy actually has an insight which many people, lots smarter than he is, can never have. And, his insight is that when the million bucks is exposed on the kitchen table, the guy suddenly places its importance up there with retrieving his wife. But… and this is the Big But that’s illuminating—if, instead of a wife he’s giving the million up for it happened to be his own hand… his outlook changes. If it’s his meathook that’s at stake—the hand that picks his nose, whacks off his trouser worm, hits his nine-iron with… he ain’t gonna dick around and chance losing that appendage by calling in the fibbies… And that’s a fairly profound insight…

So, while this is a comic novel, at the heart of it is a very serious truth.

The other reason I had so much fun writing this is that I got to include a character who was very real in my own life. Cat. Cat was a call girl I lived with for a couple of years in New Orleans and I think her character is accurately portrayed on the page. I used her real name in the novel, btw. Like the woman in the novel, Cat was sold by her mother to Carlos Marcello, the Godfather in New Orleans, when she was nine and she made the same poor career changing move—she made the mistake of turning 12 and which was much too old for his tastes and so he kicked her out and she went down to the French Quarters and was a rare survivor. Her history in Kidnapping is precisely her own real-life history with him and with me. Even though Cat tried to kill me several times—shot at me twice, tried to stab me thrice, tried to run over me in Fat City with her car once, sicced her killer brother on me and some other things—she was the most memorable person I’ve ever been involved with. I didn’t love her, but she sure was exciting to be around. And, although she was never involved in a kidnapping—at least not when I was with her—her book counterpart acted pretty much the way I think she would have under the same circumstances. Except for the kidnapping, everything Pete and Cat went through in the novel I went through with the same Cat in real life, including the scene with her, her black friend Jackie, me and the trick in the hotel gig. Who happened to be a real-life person who’s very famous and whose real name I couldn’t use, alas.

One other note. When I wrote this, I was co-writing a screenplay with Steve Duncan who happens to be a black guy. I ran the scene in the black bar with Cat pretending to have Tourettes and shouting out racial epithets to see if he thought it was racist. Not in the least, Steve told me. It’s just plain funny stuff.

Anyway, there’s some of the background stuff about this novel I thought you might find interesting. I’m working on a sequel to it at the moment and hope to finish it by the end of the year. I find I’m laughing out loud at the scenes I’m writing, so I’m pretty sure folks will like this one as well. Hope so!

Friday, October 31, 2014

What makes for a good fantasy novel?

What makes a good fantasy novel?  Fantasy, as we all know, has taken over the old Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre.  Walk into any bookstore and the Sci-Fi book racks are practically groaning under the weight of so many fantasy novels.

I'm not complaining, mind you (well . . . maybe a tiny inny little bit.  I still like nuts-and-bolts hard science fiction more).  But I'd like to know.  What makes for good Fantasy?  What are the ingredients, what's the formula, that is needed to stir up to capture a reader's imagination and keep'em glued to the book  . . . and maybe to the entire series.

The reason I bring this up is because a few years back I came up with the idea of a Fantasy series.  The Roland of the High Crags series.  Roland is a warrior-monk dedicated to protecting Humanity from the ravages of a bipedal group of Dragons who look upon humans as their ancestral enemy.  The back story as to why Dragons hate humans and visa versa is complex, twisted, and hidden in the far far dim past of both species.

But Roland is also an accomplished wizard.  And it is his wizardry skills that hold both the answers to ending the Dragon/Human wars and finding out the truth about how the wars began.

Roland, the human, is asked to both protect and raise a small Dragon child.  A female who, as legends and myths foretell, will be born to a certain Dragon clan and who will ultimately become the key Dragon weapon which will destroy all of Mankind.  Roland knows the child is this weapon.  Knows he should destroy her immediately.  But he doesn't.  Instead, he decides to accept the challenge and raise her as his own.  For reasons of his own.

So . . . my novel/series is complex.  With layers upon layers of shades of gray as relating to the motivations each of the characters exhibits.  Nothing . . . nor no one . . . is what they seem to be.  One book cannot possibly answer all the questions I suggest.  Maybe not even ten books will answer all.  That's what excites me about this series.  The mysteries; the questions; the motivations behind the masks of the smiling, or snarling, faces Roland and the child meets.

So I'm trying to revive this proposed series.  Revive it by sending off the first three chapters to a publisher who may, or may not, pick it up.  I'd like to have a publisher get behind this project.  I think the potential is there for great success (every writer is going to say that about his work, right?) 
I thought I'd share with you the first three chapters of the book I'd like to revive the series with.

Hope you like it.  Tell me what you think.


Know your enemy, my son.
 Respect his skill; admire his cunning.
                For the Dragon was built
                                For War.
                                                                -From the Book of St. Albans-


                                                            In the Beginning . . . . .

            They hung in the clear blue winter’s sky like two glistening jewels.  Two dragons.  One a Winged Beastie, her giant bat-wings stretched out to the fullest, riding the thermal drafts of the rugged forest hills like some dreaded Dark Lord.  Her wingspan was a good fifty feet.  Her body, a charcoal gray color, with its long serpentine neck and equally long horned tail delicately balancing her in her flight, sat in the sky as if she was a natural part of it.  She was a fire-breather.  An old warrior.  Supremely confident and master of the skies.
            Her rider, strapped in the heavy saddle just in front of the Beastie’s forward shoulders, had wrapped himself in a heavy cloak to keep the biting cold at bay.  The air was frigid cold.  Winter’s harsh grip had taken hold of the land and would not let go for another six months. Snuggled close to his body was the heavy looking crossbow so favored by King Dragons.  A weapon of immense power and range and very deadly in the hands of a marksman.  And something else was held close to him underneath the cloak.  Something important. 
So important it required him to keep his crossbow strung and notched.
            Two dragons riding the empty winds in maleficent grandeur.  Terrible to behold.
            Harbingers of Destiny.
            And I?
             Once a Bretan warrior-monk and accomplished wizard, now condemned and hunted by my high above and behind the unsuspecting Dragons.  Cedric was a Huygens-bred Great Wing.  A beast much resembling the smaller, but equally dangerous, Ferril Hawks which populates the forests and mountains of the High Kanris.  But bigger, much bigger, and far more deadly.  A powerful bird.  Capable of carrying me and my weapons of war high into the skies to hunt Winged Beasties and their masters.
brothers and all humanity, I rode in the saddle of my fierce Cedric
            This was my Cedric. One does not own a Great Wing.  Neither bird nor man is the other’s master.  To fight the ravages of the Dragon,  man and bird must unite in a common cause.  They must blend into a well honed weapon with one partner knowing what the other will do in the heat of battle even before the other knows himself.  Cedric and I had fought the dragon for decades.  We knew each other’s soul as if it was our own.
            Neither of us could believe a Winged Beastie and King Dragon rode the cold blue skies of the Northern Hill Country.  Yet there they were.  Both radiating from their souls a sense of boredom and being lost at the same time.  I sensed their half-hearted attempts to search the forests below for something they expected to find.  They were on a mission.  They were lost yet they were near to where they should be.  Given time they would find what they sought. They would deliver the dispatches the dragon clansman clutched beneath his cloak tightly to his chest.
            It was not that we were surprised in finding dragons.  Dragon clans possessed baronies in the North Country.  The Malawei, the Bruinii, and not too far in the west, along with the Marouth.  Malawei and Bruinii were near.  Small clans hardly large enough to keep the lands they had carved out of the enclaves of human kingdoms surrounding them as their own. Yet they too would have been an oddity to have one of its fabled fire-breathers riding alone in the clear skies here and now.
            But this clansman was neither Malawei nor Bruinii.  This clansman dressed in red and trimmed in black was Hartooth.  The First Clan.  A warrior of the fabled clan who first rose out of the swamps of the Far South.  A warrior far from home.  Far from the skies and forests he would be familiar with.  A creature who was decidedly out of his environment. Yet more importantly these Dragons were enemies.  The rider was a warrior of a legendary clan.  Legendary in their intense hatred for all of things human.  Wherever a Hartooth appeared, so too appeared death and destruction.  He was, for me as an outcast Bretan warrior-monk or not,  my sworn enemy.
            There was but one option for my feathered comrade and I to take.  We had to destroy the Hartooth courier and his fire-breathing companion.  We had to find out why a warrior of his clan was so far north.  It was imperative we snatch from his dead or dying body the messages he held so close to him and ascertain the real threat he represented.
            Reaching for my bow I quickly pulled it from its leather pouch strapped to my saddle and strung it.  Notching arrow to the string I said nothing, made no movement to signal my comrade, nor had to.  We were a team.  A well oiled machine.  The moment his sharp sense of hearing heard me string the bow he waited long enough for me to notch arrow to the string.  And then, in the blinking of an eye, he folded his wide but powerful wings and threw his beaked head down.  We, like a massive stone, dropped from out of the skies in a steep dive.  The cold winter air flew past my face at an incredible speed.  I felt my face grow numb and the sense of touch in my hands begin to disappear.  But this did no matter. Our enemies were rapidly approaching and our goals were simple.  Destroy both dragons and allow neither to escape.
            When it appeared we were about to crash into Dragon and fire-breather I sat up in my saddle, lifted the bow and pulled the string back to my ear before releasing the arrow.  It was a swift, sure, and practiced move.  One I had done a thousand times or more in my life.  The arrow flew from the bow straight and true.  It hit in the middle of the unsuspecting warrior’s back with such force it threw the warrior forward and actually penned the creature into the neck of his comrade.  The fire-breather lifted its head and screeched in pain as it started to turn and look behind and above him.
            Too late!  The Winged Beastie had no chance to dart away.  With talons extended my giant comrade and I slammed into the fire-breather’s neck with a horrendous jolt.  The collision almost ripped me out of the stout leather straps holding me into my saddle.  Cedric’s talons gripped the Beastie’s neck into a death grip and we, dragons and all, began plummeting to earth in a spiraling Dance of Death.
            The fire-breather tried to twist out of my Great Wing’s grip.  A stream of blue-white flame roared from the Beastie’s mouth as it tried to turn its head and engulf us in his fiery fury.  The roar of the flame, the heat of the fire, and the smell of burning sulfur almost saved him.  Close came his final blow to I and my faithful comrade.  But Cedric’s grip was too strong.  The Beastie could not turn his head far enough to hit to dislodge his tormentors.
            Onward we plummeted to the ground below.  I felt the life draining from the fire-breather and from the Hartooth.  And then, only few hundred feet above the snow covered forest below us, the fire-breather expired and Cedric released his grip and twisted away at the same time.  Hartooth rider and his Beastie crashed into the a small clearing with a thunderous finality.  A dark cloud of snow and soil was thrown up into the air and momentarily hid our enemies from view.  But we circled and waited, bow notched again with arrow, and both of us anticipating anything from below.  But there was no need.   The cloud of snow gently blew away.  Below us our prey lay in a jumbled heap of broken bones and splayed limbs.
            Cedric landed in the clearing some distance away from our fallen quarry and in a position which, if the fire-breather was still alive and wished to again use his hot breath against us, would be difficult for him to do so.  I leapt from my saddle after unstringing bow and replacing it in its quiver.  From my side I withdrew the curved blade of a Dragon scimitar and gripped it firmly as I approached the mass of flesh before me.  No life force could be felt within the stilled heart of the fire-breather.  But the Hartooth clansman was, for the moment, alive.  His life force was draining from his soul rapidly.  He had only moments left in this world before journeying over into the Netherworld.   He, still strapped to his saddle, had been ripped away from his companion and lay to one side of the dead Beastie.  As I stepped around the dying creature to face him I heard the clansman snort out of rattling chuckle of amusement as our eyes met for the first time.
            “Ah! I travel to the Dark World thanks to the deadly aim of a Bretan priest.  So be it.  I go honorably.  As it should be.  We were destined to meet, human. Our destinies were set long ago.  My life ends and yours continues on for a little time more.”
            He coughed, blood trickling down his lips.  From out of his chest the shaft of my arrow was visible.  He held one hand to his chest and coughed again.  And again chuckled in amusement.
            “Destiny, our destines, human, are set in stone.  It is the destiny of the Hartooth to rid this planet of all your kind.   It is the destiny of all of your kind to accept your extinction.”
            I nodded, frowning.
            “What if I do not believe in destiny, warrior?  What then?”
            “Ha!  Believe or not!  It does not matter.”
            He tried to laugh but had no strength as his life force deserted his physical form.
            Using the tip of my sword I reached forward and slid part of his red cloak to one side.  Lifting the heavy leather courier’s satchel from his body I cut the straps holding it to him. Picking the satchel up with the tip of my blade I stepped away from the dead and moved back to a position close to my comrade.  A quick perusal of the dispatches  made me frown even more.  The Hartooth were coming.  And they were coming in force.
            Destiny.  Our destines  sat long ago.  Set in stone forever and incapable of changing.
Did I believe that?  Was it true?  Was it the destiny of mankind to be eradicated from this world by the Hartooth?  Was it meaningless to resist?

And to think the Great Jihad, the Final War, began eight years ago with the birth of a dragon child. 
            The worlds of the Dragon and of Man shook and shuddered from the terrible conflict. This maleficent conflagration consumed the innocent and the valiant like some uncontrolled forest fire.  There was no one who would escape it unscathed.  There was no place to hide.  Like a disease this war grew ever larger, absorbed more riches and natural resources, while conversely increasing the grim migration of souls into the farther reaches of the Netherworld.
            Even the heavens and the Netherworld roared with the cacophony of battle.  The gods of Man and the grim Dark Lords of the Dragon, ancestral and immortal enemies since the beginning of time, chose now to come down from the heavens or rise out of the nebulous veils of the Netherworld and partake in the blood letting.
            I, a simple warrior-monk of the Bretan, knew my duty. 
            Warrior.  Monk. Wizard.
            Trained since childhood to fight the battles the weak, the innocent, the hapless could not.  Trained to seek out Evil in all its forms and confront it; to make war on it and to drive it back into the abyss.  We in the Bretan worship one god.  It is our belief that Shin’zin is everywhere. He is everything. Both the animate and the inanimate contain a part of Shin’zin.  But more importantly, we believe Shin’zin comes in the disguise of a thousand different gods.  He is called in a thousand different ways.  He shapes his visage so he will be recognized by those who plead for his help.  He is the Giver of Light and Life.  He is the Healer of All Wounds.  Beneficent. Humble.  But ever vigilant.  Evil comes in many shapes and forms.  Evil comes with the murderous roar of the Lion or with the tender caress of an apparent loving mother.  Evil relishes its disguises and gloats on its accomplishments in deceiving those who plead for mercy.
            Evil must be confronted.  A warrior-monk-wizard of the Bretan does not hesitate.
            Nor did I. 
            It all began a year and a half  earlier.   In the monastery of St. Rolla I felt a great stirring of Evil.   I felt it stirring like a deadly snow-viper does just underneath a fresh blanket of snow and moments before it strikes.    An Evil of immense proportions which dwelt only in the twilight between the conscience and the unconscious.  An Evil powerful enough to reach out and control the destines of Man and Dragon.  And possibly even the Currents of Time found in the Netherworld.
             This feeling came to me in the early hours before dawn while a blizzard with howling winds and blinding snows made the walls of the monastery grown and creak.  The last throes of Winter were screaming in their rage and Spring was about to return and thaw the earth.  Spring.  A time of hope.  Renewal.  Rebirth.  But on that night, and in my Mind’s Eye, I felt as if death itself was stalking the land.
            Wizards have an ability called the Inner Eye.  It is a  added sense which makes us ‘see’ the auras of living things around us.  All living forms have both a generic and  specific aura.    A generic aura would be describing what Evil looks like.  It is a dimly glowing mass of blues and blacks.  The colors move and change shape, they either brighten or dim, depending on the mood of the Evil and whether it moves or whether it has found a prey and stalks it silently.  On this night I felt a great stirring of Evil.  It washed over my soul like a sudden onslaught of frigid arctic air.  And it came from the East.
            Rising at sunrise to begin my training anew word came to St. Rolla that the Clan Anktooth and their lands were being overrun by an ancient and deadly foe.  The Anktooth, an old and honored Dragon clan we of the Bretan were long familiar with, both as a friend and as a foe, were facing a foe many times their size in numbers and far more wealthy—and far more proficient in making war.  We of the faith sent spies toward the Anktooth’s lands to seek additional information.  On their return the news cemented our fears a terrible event was taking place. 
            The First Clan was again waging war on a grand scale. They were swallowing up lands and baronies in a wide swath and were now trying to devour the Anktooth.  The Hartooth, in Dragon legends one of the first four Dragon clans to rise out of the swamps and stand on two legs, carried with it the Dragon prophecy of being humanity’s nemesis. They again blew the horns of war and brought fire and sword down upon their enemies. Slowly and methodically in their terrible martial splendor they were marching toward the High Kanris.
            Toward humanity.
            A year ago I decided to mount my magnificent Huygens bred Great Wing and ride the winds toward the lands of the Anktooth.  Normally Dragon and Man war against each other.  Yet, of late, there had been instances where individuals have come to the aid of their once ancestral enemies.  I knew the Anktooth.  I knew them to be honorable.  I knew they wished to forge some kind of cessation of hostilities with Mankind and to begin a lucrative, and mutual, series of trade agreements with  the kingdoms close to their borders.
            I knew they would accept my offer of assistance.
             To my surprise others came as well.  Niscian riders, Hurlian bowmen, and an assortment of mercenary warriors.  All human.  All united in their desire to confront the Hartooth and defeat them in battle.  For a little over a year the combined arms of human and Anktooth fought the might and wealth of the Hartooth.    Perhaps a hundred or so Great Wing riders from the High Kanris came down from their snow capped peaks and joined us.  For a year I led this group of Great Wings, rising into the air over the battlements of the city to confront the flame-breathing Winged Beasties and their riders of the enemy.
            It was a valiant fight.  A war which songs of mighty deeds, from all sides, no doubt were composed.  But heroic deeds of individuals cannot win a war.  With out wealth war cannot be fought for long durations.  The Hartooth had warriors as heroic and as brave as any Anktooth or human.  Yet the numbers of the Hartooth seemed to never dwindle.  When a Hartooth fell three would rise up to fill the gaps in the battle line.  That could mean only one thing.  Gold.
            A vast reservoir of gold seemingly limitless in size and spent lavishly for men, arms, material and the other accouterments of war.  The Hartooth’s wealth seemed like an endless ocean.  Everyday from the battlements we would see new formations arriving to join the ranks arrayed before us.  Everyday, as our numbers dwindled and weakened from constant battle, we faced fresh enemies eager to join the fray.  My hundred riders dwindled with each passing day.  We would litter the skies with the falling bodies of our foes still strapped to the saddles of the dead Winged Beasties.  But at night, when we had fought our last aerial sortie, I would count those who returned and my heart would grow heavy.
            Wealth is the engine of war, Pilgrim.  Without it no barony, no kingdom, no rarified and Noble Cause can sustain itself for long.  The Anktooth were not a wealthy clan.  They did not possess gold or silver mines.  Their wealth came from commerce.  Trade and commerce was quickly decapitated from the Anktooth the moment the Hartooth arrived.
            The end came soon enough.  And the journey I now struggle to complete began.
            In the dying hours of the final assault on the city of Anhk, the last city belonging to the Anktooth, I was pulled from the fight by the taciturn presence of a Mauk Clan warrior loyal to the old Anktooth baron.  The Mauk had been loyal followers and servants of the Anktooth for generations.  Related to the Anktooth, the Mauk knew they faced the same threat as the Anktooth did from the Hartooth.   Resisting a First Clan meant, if they lost, extinction.  The Anktooth were losing.  Only a matter of hours were left in their existence.  Before the rise of the next sun not one, but two, ancient and honorable dragon clans would no longer walk the earth.
            I was quickly led to a place where the old Anktooth baron stood with a group of other warriors, Dragon and human mercenaries, along with a few of his own warriors, accompanied the old baron.  There was a child there as well.  A female Dragon child of seven years.  Shaking with terror.  Her heart filled with anguish and pain.  Clinging to the leg of her grandfather, the old baron, with the intensity only the desperate can achieve.
            But more than just a Dragon child.  More than just the last of the royal blood to the Anktooth.  She was, in truth, far more important than that.   She was a legendary Pearl Princess.  The last of the five promised to Dragonkind through prophecy.
            The Fifth Sister.
             The one promised to rise up and unite all of Dragonkind.  The promised prophet destined by Dragon gods to be the salvation of the Dragon. Once united she would lead the dragon in the Final War against humanity. 
            Evil incarnate.  A witch who, as the four before her were, was endowed with incredible powers to control the Netherworld.  She would master the Netherworld.  She would be able to tap into that vast and limitless dynamo of raw supernatural power and mold it to her will in whatever she desired.  No human wizard, if she grew to adulthood and acquired all her power, would be able to defeat her.  No collected mass of wizards combining their powers would be able to thwart her plans.  Humanity would be lost.  Destroyed.  Wiped from the face of the earth if this Pearl Princess was allowed to live.
            Being a Bretan warrior-monk, and wizard of the First Order, I was sworn to protect humanity from the ravages of the Dragon.  But more importantly my vows compelled me to seek out and destroy Evil whenever and wherever I could find it.  Now Evil stood directly in front of me.  In the presence of a seven year old child.  A frightened and confused child clinging to her grandfather.
            “You are to take her, warrior.   You and your fabulous Great Wing are to ride high into the mountains beyond.  Hide her, Roland of the High Crags.  Hide her and protect her . . . “
            A Dragon baron asking a Betan warrior-wizard to save and protect the abomination called a Pearl Princess.  A Dragon asking me to defy my humanity and protect the one creature who would acquire the power to eradicate humanity from existence.  To defy my religious vows.  To become, if I accepted the quest, a Malus Apostate, the most horrendous of all heretical banishment decrees a wizard could acquire from his religious order.  To be hunted like an animal.  To be shown no mercy.  To suffer the agonized and miseries within the Netherworld for the rest of eternity.
            If I accepted the quest.  If I chose to condemn my kind to damnation.
            If . . .
            I gazed into the child’s soul.  I felt her pain.  I felt her terror.  I glimpsed the edges of her already astonishing powers of the Netherworld.  She made no effort to hide or disguise her soul from me even though she knew I was examining her closely.
            I saw the potential in her.  The potential for both Evil and Good.   But there was something else I detected.  She glowed with an aura of a child’s innocence. There was no Evil present.  They were no hidden veils which might possibly mask Evil.  She was as she appeared to be.  An innocent child on the verge of being cruelly executed by a hostile and unforgiving world.  No one was strong enough to protect her.  No one felt any tenderness toward her, except that of her grandfather and the old Clan Mauk warrior who led me to her standing beside me.  To the mercenaries who tried to convince the old baron they were better choices in saving the child’s life I could feel nothing but greed and hatred for the child.
            She was alone in the world.  Alone, confused, and defenseless.  Yes . . . already she could command immense powers within the Netherworld.  But she was without training.  She knew not what she could do with these powers.  Left alone and unchecked she would become a danger to all life on the planet.  If she fell into the hands of her father, the Hartooth baron, she would become the trained weapon of Dragon prophecy.
            But . . .
            Two thoughts crossed my mind immediately the moment I looked into her soul.  First, warrior-wizard of the Bretan as I was I could not kill an innocent child.  All my religious training in the Bretan Way screamed against such an act.  The Bretan was supposed to defend and protect the old, the weak, the innocent, and the young.  The child was devoid of all evil.  She was but a seven year old child.  To extinguish her life with the flick of wrist, much like that of someone pinching the burning flame of a candle into oblivion, would be an evil act in itself.
            At the same time a revelation came to me.  Suddenly, before my eyes like a blinding flash of intense light, opened the possibility of defying prophecy!  By taking the child into my protection and teaching her the tricks and techniques the Bretan used to control both the power and the potential madness found in the Netherworld, might I mold the weapon which would destroy Dragon prophecy?  A Dragon weapon forged by the Dragon gods themselves used to destroy the very ones who created it!  Struck breathless I saw all the potential dilemmas and the potential rewards this possibility offered!
            If prophecy could be destroyed, might it be possible for Dragon and Man to finally learn how to live together in peace?  Was it mandatory that one species or the other had to be wiped clean from the face of the planet in order to obtain peace?  To finally remove the bleak and terrible fury of the Dark Lords from the hearts of the dragon was a vision none before thought possible.  But here was a chance–an admittedly dismally slim chance–of doing just that!
            Defy my religious vows.  Defy my gods.  Defy all of humanity and Dragonkind together in order to achieve something beyond comprehension.  Peace.  Wonderful, lasting, so long sought after Peace.
            I agreed to the Anktooth’s request.  I agreed to protect the child and teach her the Bretan Way.  I knew what dangers this could mean to all.  I knew Evil, if it ever entered the child’s heart, would know how to thwart all the techniques the Bretan knew in controlling the Netherworld. 
            I knew I would be condemned by all.  I knew I would be hunted, along with the child, and promised a most horrible end.  I knew my fate.  And I agreed to defy it.  Within an hour we fled from the dying city of Anhk.  We flew high into the towering peaks of a mountain pass which led up into the High Kanris.  We, the child and I, began our quest for either achieving the unreachable crown called Peace.  Or die trying.
            Only the Fates knew how our journey would end.


      Be like the graceful willow
   Which bends and does not resist
     When the wind blows strong;
                For in truth,
   Strength lies not in resistance
 But in the power others
          hurl against you.
                                                                                                -From be Book of St. Albans-


            -One’s destiny is never the route anticipated.
            -Destiny is the Mistress of Obfuscation; one never knows where it might lead.
            -Random serendipity, or maleficent opportunity, are like the strikes of a blacksmith’s  hammer on the glistening surface of Destiny. 
            -Destiny may be formed with random thoughts, or an idle turn of a word; it is as virulent force fed by ideas.  Or as weak as an old man’s passing whimsy.
            -One needs not seek Destiny.  Destiny will find you.
            I remember these words vividly.  Spoken to me by an old man who walked with a firm stride, hands clasped behind his back, his dark brown eyes taking in the beauty around us as we made our way through the gardens of St. Rolla’s Monastery.  Even then, as a young initiate in the midst of my training in wizardry,  Master Breen was old.  As old as the Bretan Brotherhood was old some said.  Others whispered Master Breen knew Saint Bretan; learned from the sect’s founder the Bretan Ways of a warrior monk.  Still others said the old man had witnessed the final climatic battles against the onslaught of the Dragon which drove the remnants of humanity into the High Kanris.
            It does not matter.  I know not the truth.  All I can say with certainty is that Master Breen was very old.  Yet, in many respects, very young at the same time.  He did not walk with the gait of an old man.  His stride was slow, deliberate, but firm and unhesitating.   He was old and wise.   And gentle.  This I remember the most.  His gentleness.
             His dark brown eyes were sharp and clear and filled with a mischievous merriment quite captivating to behold.  He loved the cloistered gardens of St. Rolla’s with a passion.  After every arduous training session, whenever a task in training a warrior monk to become a wizard had pushed me to the brink of exhaustion or frustration, I would find Master Breen kneeling at a rose bush and carefully working the flower beds around it in an effort to make it bloom more beautifully.
            “Ah, the young wizard has suffered another defeat?” he would say, a smile working his thin lips, his voice quiet, yet compelling, to hear.  “You need not worry, boy.  Tasting defeat in a trial of skill is but a thin layer added to the eventual lustrous shine.  Patience is the key.  Patience and endurance. Yes . . . patience and endurance.”
            He would come to his feet, wait for me to join at his side, and we would stroll through the gardens for hours on end talking about my difficulties.  Ah, to be honest; I would be the one talking and he mostly listened.  He would smile, make an amusing comment about something or the other, and it all seemed to come together by the end of our stroll.  I always felt better, and even prepared, for the next day’s difficulties after these talks.
            Master Breen was neither a monk nor a servant at St. Rolla’s.  He had no official position there.Yet he was much revered by monk and servant alike.  Even the abbot himself demurred to Master Breen’s wishes whenever the old man voiced an opinion.  It was, in retrospect, all very curious that such a one as he would come to live in a Bretan Monastery.  Not that our monasteries are reclusive hide outs for the devout.   In all of the surviving monasteries my brothers occupy our doors are open to any who made need our assistance.  The weak, the poor, the dying, the young, the destitute come to us seeking our aid.  We turn no one away.
            But in Master Breen’s case it seemed quite odd such a man would choose to live the simple monastic life of a Bretan monk. Neither rich nor poor, Master Breen was neither common peasant nor exiled nobleman.  He was not an inhabitant of any of the standard class systems found in most of the societies in the High Country. He was an non-entity.  A ghost who lived among the living.  A ghost with very special skills.
            As a young initiate I learned much from this old man.  Important concepts a wizard must accomplish if they wish not to be seduced by the powers of the Netherworld. Power is corruption.  Power is an enchanting seductress which lures their victims into a sensual oblivion which knows no limits.  Once lost into that oblivion no wizard ever comes back. They are gone forever.
            The Netherworld was the ultimate seducer; the ultimate power. A wizard who consciously played within its confines would, in the end, find himself standing on the precipice of his own destruction.  In the end the seducer’s sensual call would become too much for the wayward magician to resist.
            Think of the Netherworld, pilgrim, as vast river which stretches off into infinity.  Standing on its lone banks and gazing onto the river was like looking into Infinity itself. There are no boundaries. Only the unwavering flatness of water everywhere.  Standing on the banks before the Great River of Time is an intoxicating liquor in itself.  One’s senses are bombarded with exciting stimuli.  But this sensation is nothing when compared to sliding into the water itself.  The water in the River of Time is warm and titillating.  The water is filled with an electrifying power which surges through every pore of your body with a breathtaking alacrity. Suddenly every atom of your body is filled with a sense of infinite power.  Of infinite knowledge.  Your eyes and mind can see into the Past as clearly as you can see into the Future.  All things are known to you.
            In the waters of the Netherworld all who have come before you, and all who will come after you, can be summoned.  With stunning clarity not only do you see the current of Time you reside in all of its stunning detail. You see all of the currents of Time which make up the River of Time.  Suddenly parallel universes spring up before your eyes.  Universes uncountable and unimaginable.   You see . . .You.  You as You were in the past.  You as You are in the Present.  And You as You will become in the Future. You in all the different universes which might dwell in the River of Time.
            For a wizard to summon the soul of someone who has, or will at some time in the future, tread the paths found in the Outer Realms is a dangerous liquor to taste.  But the power to summon yourself . . .  summon the You of your Past or of your Future, and discuss with them what is in store for you,  is a power of destined to make you slip into the clinging arms of Insanity.
            Terrible is the power of the Netherworld!  Frightening are the dangers found in this River of Time.  The allure of manipulating Time, of controlling the accidents of Fate which are destined to befall you, or anyone, is an addictive drug which lures the wayward wizard to his eventual destruction.  Wizards become intoxicated with the power.  This overwhelming intoxication convinces them they can manipulate Time itself.
            Ah, pilgrim!  Foolish is the wizard who becomes thus seduced into believing this madness!  The terrible truth is Time cannot be manipulated.  The Future is too nebulous of clearly see.  Too many currents weave a complex tapestry we call the Future. Certain threads within this tapestry may unravel and break.  Others will fill in the gaps and make the weave even stronger.  The Future is never a constant.  It is always in a state of flux.  Too many currents, too many variables, make up the Future.  No wizard, however powerful he may be, can use the powers of the Netherworld to shape what is to come.
            That I learned while at the monastery of St. Rolla.  The powers of the Netherworld were to be used only when necessity demanded it.  A wizard’s power came directly from the Netherworld.  If one wished to be more of a wizard than a warrior-monk, one would eventually succumb to its lures.  Into the abyss the wizard would fall.  An abyss which there was no path available in bringing him back into the Light.
            It was Master Breen who taught me about the seductress of power.   In his soft and gentle ways he showed me the pitfalls
            “To live with the Netherworld, Bretan, means to always look at it as a potential enemy.  It never reveals its true purpose.  It is neither Good nor Evil.   Honor or morals means nothing to it.  Because it cannot, or will not, consider the Good from the Evil it becomes the perfect residence for both.  In the Netherworld never, ever, take anything felt or witnessed with your own senses for what it appears to be.  The true nature of the Netherworld is to deceive.”               

            Words, spoken long ago by a man I so admired played across my conscience as I sat on my hunches beside a towering oak in the depths of the Goram Hill forest country.  Below me, perhaps no more than two or three miles away, in a narrow valley between towering forested hills, I gazed upon the encampment of a Dragon army.  I felt myself frowning.  My heart felt like lead. The valley the Dragon occupied was long but narrow and as straight as the path of an arrow.  Virgins forests, thick and dark, filled most of the valley floor.  Here and there were large patches of open spaces where local farmers had hacked out fields to plant their crops.  Running through the middle of the valley, twisting and turning in a dark brown ribbon of constant use, a wide and deeply rutted road made its way from the north to the south.  In the north it finally faded into the vast sprawling grasslands of the Northern Steppes.  Its opposite point ended in front of the massive wooden gates of a walled city called Malagna.  The first of two large Dragon enclaves possessed by a small Dragon clan called the Malawei.
            A part of my mind wished to dismiss the sight below me as some kind of fever-induced dream. The First Clan so far north in the hill country?  Here, and apparently ensconced in their fortified camps, unbeknown by any human or dragon opponent? 
            Yet there they were.  A vast fortified camp setting behind a wooden palisade made from felled trees.  Within the walls the Dragon had created a perfect city.  Rows upon rows of tents formed perfectly aligned communities and wide streets allowed for easy access to any part of the camp.  Just on the other side of the wooden walls a deep and wide trench had been dug encircling the entire fortification.  Sharpened stakes driven at angles into the back slopes of the trench provided an extra barrier for any foe who might attack the dragon encampment.
            This was not a temporary resting place where an invading army momentarily paused to rest itself.  This was the beginnings of a permanent establishment.  The rough canvas tents would soon be replaced with stout log cabins.  A second wall, stronger in it construction than the first, would be thrown upon the opposite side of the trench.  With the addition of that second wall the Dragon would be rooted into the land itself.  It would take an army four times the size of the enemy before me to dislodge them from this valley.
            Yet, by spring time more of the First Clan would arrive.  Thousands more.
            In this part of the Goram Hills neither the Malawei, nor the warriors from the two small human kingdoms nearby, would be strong enough to remove the Clan Hartooth from the valley.  With winter setting in no force could be hammered together to do the bloody work needed before the spring thaws arrived.  The Clan Hartooth had arrived in the North Country.  The First Clan of Dragonkind.  The clan who reveled at making war on all of humankind.  The prophecy said they would unite all of Dragonkind and lead the combined clans into the Final Battle against humanity. They were here. In this valley. Threatening the very existence of humanity itself.  And I, a Bretan warrior-monk, and one of the few surviving Bretan wizards left, sworn by my religious vows to confront Evil in all its forms, saw Evil resting in the valley below.
            I knew my duty.  I knew what must be done. 
            Evil had to be confronted.
            Coming to my feet I turned away from the sight below me.  My heart was heavy.  Guilt and shame flooded through my veins.  I would mount my powerful war bird, a magnificent black and red plumed Great Wing and ride away.  I would shirk my duty and flee from this conflict.
            A more powerful threat compelled me to act like a coward.


          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 Hugyens-bred 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, frown 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 know.   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.
            Who indeed.