A CONTINUATION OF THE CLASSIC BEASTMASTER SAGA...
In an epic journey across the mystical lands of Ancor, a lone warrior confronts a sinister power from beyond the stars -- forced to stake his very survival on the aid of his companions: a soaring eagle, a fearsome tiger, and two cunning, quick ferrets.
Blessed with an extraordinary gift to commune with animals, yet haunted by his own legacy and tragic past, Dar has become champion of his world and its natural riches. But when an unyielding force of evil and carnage descends upon his gentle existence, he must emerge from a spiritual journey and embark upon a dreadful voyage. Will Dar become the savior Ancor so desperately needs, or will his world be subjected to an evil that leaves no innocent unharmed -- human or beast? And when a striking figure from Dar's past reappears, can she help him salvage his broken spirit?
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November 30, 2009
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Excerpt from Beastmaster by Richard A. Knaak
Once upon a tIme...
It was a way storytellers from the very fi rst began their tales, whether true or of their own imagining. It was always some version of those words.
Once upon a time...
Yet, to a sage such as Baraji, time did not happen once, but always. There were as many moments of the same bit of time as there were sands in a desert. More even, for, in truth, time was endless in all directions.
But that did not mean that a single moment might not affect all the rest and that such moments might indeed determine not only the fates of men, but worlds and more.
The bald, skeletal fi gure muttered under his breath, breath that came out in thick clouds, for the icy cave in which Baraji meditated was situated high upon a snowcapped peak of dank Harrath, north of even chill Andereas. Baraji himself did not, of course, notice such a mundane thing as the cold, for he had long ago progressed past such human frailty. His mind, his soul, was focused instead on the many realities beyond perceived reality, and the nature of all that, which was imminent to the future.
The tiny fire before him was surrounded by perfectly circular black stones that themselves formed a perfect circle. The power of the mandala shone in the pattern of the stones and even the flames within. Baraji leaned forward to examine the center of the fire not with his weaker mortal eyes, but with the invisible third one that could see beyond this one plane of existence.
It was as he had thought. Nodding satisfaction, he gathered snow from the icy cave floor and tossed it onto the flames.
The fire erupted with a squeal. A shape suddenly burst from the center -- tendrils, like grass, blossomed into red, inquisitive orbs lacking pupils, fearsome orbs that stared in all directions for the space of a breath...and then turned into a crimson-tinged mist that swiftly dissipated.
"It is the moment," rasped Baraji. "But is it?"
In truth, that was not for him to decide; that was for another. And so, Baraji reached into the snow again and removed a single brown and black feather buried within it. Released with a flick from his cadaverous hand, the feather bobbed on the heaving halo of fire before being swept into the flames. A plume of thick, acrid smoke burst forth from the now bloodred blaze.
Baraji inhaled deeply, inviting the mystic powers of the smoke to flow into him. As he did, a faint, familiar voice emerged from within the fire, a voice that cried the same question over and over.
Who am I? it asked. Who am I? repeated the voice, and though it was strong of timbre, it was rife with uncertainty.
And from the smoke arose a ghostly visage that continued to mouth the question. The face took on the semblance of a lithe man in his prime -- square jaw, angular features, and bright, guileless blue eyes set under a brooding brow. For a moment, the ghostly vision confronted Baraji...then flung forward, enveloping the sage's own face.
In that instant, Baraji's countenance became that of the man in the smoke. His bald pate was suddenly crowned by thick, brown locks that framed the sturdy, clean-shaven face. Yet, where once there had been a haunted, questioning look, now was an expression of self-knowledge.
"I am," Baraji mustered through the magical mask. "I am..."
But no sooner did he answer than the other face sloughed off, plunging into the fire. The voice dissolved into ash as it implored once more the same earnest question.
With a toothless smile that held no humor, the sage drew a small mandala in the frozen ground between him and the fire -- circles within circles surrounding triangles and, in their very midst, a rounded mouth. Baraji muttered under his breath once more and, in the center of the mandala, saw simultaneously many things, many places, and many times.
Lastly he saw a great glacier...and on it, a tiny figure. The young man from the smoke.
Baraji let himself become the vision. The harsh, swirling landscape surrounded him. The winds roared with abandon, whipping across the barren glacier and over the naked figure seated cross-legged in meditation. Snow and ice draped the man as if he had been there for a great period...which was truer than even the figure knew himself. His body was lean and well-muscled and so very pale that most would have thought -- rightly so under the circumstances -- that he had long ago lost his battle against the ferocious elements.
But Baraji peered close and saw the faint, telltale puff of breath every few minutes. The man was deep in a trance, journeying through the worlds within him as the sage had taught him.
His teacher was much pleased by the dedication, much pleased by the effort. Back in the cave, the physical Baraji nodded at his student. He opened his mouth -- and unleashed a deafening roar like that of a great jungle cat.
Dar's body flinched ever so slightly. Deep within, he stirred from the contemplations that had consumed him during his trance. His subconscious felt the echo of an animal call...and yet not. He tried to return to the relative serenity of his meditation and the search for answers to his constant question...Who am I? What am I? Am I a man? An animal? Both? Neither? What is my purpose in this world?
Those who had met him in the real world called him not by his name, but most often by how legend had marked him. They called him the Beastmaster, for Dar had the ability to become one with any animal, the ability to speak with them and see through their eyes. The creatures of the jungle would even stand with him in battle against sorcerers and other evils he encountered during his endless journeys throughout Ancor. In the space of his twenty-plus summers, Dar had become a mythic figure, his epithet woven into countless fantastic stories, both real and embellished by those who recited them.
Dar had not asked for such abilities; they had been thrust upon him before he had even been born. Dark sorcery had ripped him from his mother's womb -- brutally slaying her in the process -- and had implanted his fetus into the womb of a cow. After his birth into the arms of his wicked captors, Dar was marked for murder -- a ritual of fire that would keep him from fulfilling his epic prophecy. But the fates intervened, and instead Dar was rescued and raised by a simple villager, a farmer with no knowledge of the infant's royal blood or of his natal link to animal kind.
Dar's incredible abilities manifested themselves while he was but a child...a fortunate turn of events that enabled him at the time to rescue his adoptive father from the clutches of a hungry bear by facing the ursine giant and silently commanding it to leave. As the boy came of age, there were more and more incidents -- most of them minor in event, yet still astounding for simply being what they were.
And so began the legend of the Beastmaster...
It had taken many summers for Dar to discover the truth of his origins -- summers in which he became known far and wide for his abilities and deeds, and one particular summer in which he not only lost his adoptive father but most of his village to a bloodthirsty barbarian horde. He helped the survivors to resettle, but, haunted by his failure to save his father and his village, he left shortly thereafter out of personal shame.
What had been intended as only a short journey became an endless one with only intermittent visits to what remained of his home. Some of the people he met during his distant wanderings accepted his existence with gratitude, others with fear. Many of the former even offered him friendship or a place to stay, but ever the Beastmaster moved on from village to village, realm to realm. Like the many creatures he encountered, Dar could never tame the restlessness within himself, a restlessness that he finally understood had come not just from the loss of the only human family he had ever had, but -- in some ways yet more significant -- not knowing where he belonged among the men and animals of his world.
Thus, in search of answers, the Beastmaster -- a "legend" that believed little in his own tale -- had journeyed up to the mountains of Harrath, northernmost of all realms, to see the sage of whom many wise men had spoken. Baraji would be the one to help him, they had said. Baraji is enlightenment, they had insisted. From him, Dar would find the answers. And he had begun to...
But his meditations now struck a desperate and frightening impasse. Vivid dreams assailed his mind. Like an enemy army waiting, ready to spring, eager to catch its target unaware -- in one fell swoop the visions overpowered Dar. He struggled to regain the peace and composure for which he had so long earnestly fought, but the dreams -- nay, nightmares -- would not let him. Dar was bombarded by horrific vision after horrific vision, most of them filled with things that seemed impossible for his imagination to create.
He saw his beloved world, his Ancor, shrouded in black, monstrous smoke billowing from vast, jagged wounds in the earth. The gust of thick plumes covered more than a mile and filled the heavens with a dread eagerness. It was a wonder there was light at all, for the sun could surely not shine through. The only source of light in his nightmares radiated from the holes themselves, where red and gold flames and flashes of what appeared to be blue lightning illuminated the permament night.
And in the wicked glow Dar saw fiends and demons of myriad shapes and evils. Giant metal golems -- each a three-legged cyclops whose lone eye was a blazing, azure orb that spit lightning -- strode over burnt trees, seeking movement. Helmeted and armored demons short of stature but broad of build scurried along the ground, bursting fire from weapons held within their clawed hands. In the manic strobes of illumination, their bulbous-eyed helmets with protruding elephantine hoses gave the impression of some grotesque giant insect.
Shadows moved that might have been spiders -- had they not been tenfold the size of a man. More fearsome creatures followed in the wake of the helmeted warriors, which Dar's distressed subconscious could not identify as akin to anything that had ever walked Ancor.
Then, through the thick smoke enshrouding the heavens, fell a fiery rain of huge rocks.
They struck the lands in Dar's nightmares with relentless precision, wiping out towns, villages, kingdoms. High stone walls shattered like eggshells and mighty palaces were crushed into dust. A blistering inferno gorged all in its path and belched only ash, as the gargantuan missiles buried themselves deep in Ancor's ravaged soil.
And from those enormous pits erupted more wicked black plumes, transforming the sky into a horrific shadow. Dar fought to see what lay in the bottom of the nearest crater, for he could not fathom that these massive plumes were simply the result of impact. There was something darker, more evil, at work within. He pressed forward, nearing the edge.
He squinted hard into the choking, black smoke -- but just as the stinging haze enveloped him, the Beastmaster awoke with a scream that echoed beyond the stark, lifeless glacier, beyond even the nearby peaks.
Dar's body, which Baraji had suggested he strip naked in order to better relive the experience of birth and beginning, was encrusted in glittering layers of ice and snow -- the accumulation of many a storm. Even the bright sun could not diminish the biting cold, and Dar, shaking off the icy white shroud, quickly scrambled for his garments and the thick brown fur that his teacher had given him for this journey. Even then, the lean fighter was clad in little more than shin-high leather boots, a dark-tanned kilt fitted with metal tabs, and matching wrist guards. Like his animal brethren, Dar lived simply, taking from the world only what was required for survival.
As full reason returned, Dar suddenly realized that he was alone. He quickly surveyed the chill area, but found no sign of his trusted comrades. Concentrating, he tried to touch their minds, but failed.
Baraji, Dar immediately thought. Ruh and the others must be with Baraji!
From a powdery mound to his left, Dar dug out a pouch and a long, wooden staff. His sword he had left in the care of Baraji, who had suggested that Dar's only conflict atop the glacier would be that within himself.
But Dar was puzzled by what had manifested in his nightmares.
He stared down at his feet, where, still clearly etched in the hard snow despite the weather, a mandala -- a circular pattern Dar had drawn according to Baraji's earlier tutoring -- yet beckoned. The mandala, with its inner circles in which lay pyramids and crisscrossing lines, had been the Beastmaster's focus for his meditation. Mandalas were key to the self-awareness that Dar sought, if only because they opened up what Baraji called the chakras within him. Releasing each of the chakras -- nexuses to one's inner energy and being -- were the first steps toward that understanding.
Yet as the stiffness in Dar's limbs softened after what seemed like days of meditation, he felt no closer to the truth. He wondered if he had been wrong to see hope in the sage's lessons. As far as he could tell, all he had garnered was a frozen body and dread dreams that, thankfully, could have nothing to do with the true world. Nothing at --
His bright eyes widened in shock as Dar glanced toward the south -- and saw a sky as black as pitch. The Beastmaster uttered no sound. The monstrous horrors from his nightmares ran through his mind.
He began to run. Like a nimble mountain goat, Dar raced along the glacier to the distant slope he had initially ascended. The shrieks of the dying resounded in his ears, and he could not help but think that each fading voice had been true, after all. Baraji would know; Baraji would tell Dar if his sinister dreams were actually based in reality.
Baraji, the Beastmaster prayed, would surely tell him that he was only imagining.
Consumed with ever-swelling anxiety for both his dear friends and his beloved Ancor, Dar ran recklessly, frantically. His foot cracked through a thin layer of frozen snow and wedged into a narrow gap. He stumbled, and the slick ice beneath thrust him forward. Dar lost his footing, lost control...
He plummeted to the glacier's edge, sliding toward a drop of well over a thousand feet. Dar jammed his staff into the snow, trying to halt or even slow his fall, but the wooden stick abruptly cracked in two. The Beastmaster clutched at the ground, seeking a handhold, but his grasping fingers only came away with icy powder.
The wind howled harder in his ears, a sign that the edge was near. With his mind, Dar called out to those who were his cherished family, his comrades in arms -- but they were oddly absent. The mental link with each had been severed as if they were dead.
He struggled for traction again, but encountered only empty air. Dar flew off the edge --
And awoke again.
Now he sat cross-legged in a familiar place, his sword over his lap. The ice-covered stalactites and stalagmites gave the sage's cave the semblance of a giant mouth with savage teeth -- a mouth about to swallow him whole.
Baraji paid him no mind, the hairless elder gazing into the tiny fire he always kept. Dar sat opposite his teacher, a position he recalled from numerous occasions, before Baraji had sent him to the glacier.
Or had Dar ever actually left?
"It is...but is it?" muttered the wizened figure as he reached down beside him and took up a tiny bit of snow. Baraji tossed the hardened flakes into the fire. An eruption of multicolored flames illuminated a sudden apparition -- a round-eyed, demonic face that appeared ever so briefly above the fire.
Baraji nodded as if the already-vanishing sight explained all things perfectly. "It is...it must be..." He suddenly looked up, meeting Dar's startled gaze. "It must be..."
"What -- what must be?" Dar was startled by his own voice, which sounded as if it better belonged to one of the great frogs of the Myrnean Swamp. Swallowing, the Beastmaster tried again. "What must...be?" His nerves grew taut as he recovered from his astonishment at finding himself in the cave rather than plummeting off the glacier, and recalled the vivid dreams of slaughter and devastation. "Ancor! Does it have to do with Ancor?" He leaped to his feet. "I dreamed -- "
"Dreamed you did, but lived you did," sang the sage darkly. "Awaiting the moment, if the moment is here. Several summers, two hands worth and some, your waiting, for -- "
"So many?" Dar blurted, staggering back. He shook his head, refusing to believe that he had heard correctly. "Master Baraji...you must tell me...you speak as if...as if it has been so many seasons since I last walked the jungles...that the trance..."
The elderly figure nodded. "Ten summers and some, the Beastmaster has dwelled in his timeless quest while Ancor has seen light turn to darkness."
So very long. Dar turned from his teacher, trying to come to grips with what Baraji claimed. It could not be true! This must have been some new lesson that the master sought to teach him...
As if hearing him, Baraji said, "All is as it had to be, my student; all was necessary."
Dar spun back to face him. "Why? This was not what I asked for! Why?" He thought of the changes, the losses, that could happen in one season, let alone as many as Baraji hinted at. Who was alive? Who was dead? Who --
The nightmares came back to him. "They are real, aren't they? Everything I saw!"
Baraji stared into the fire, saying nothing. It was answer enough for Dar. He all but lunged toward the emaciated man.
"Master Baraji! Why? What is happening to Ancor? And why let me be ignorant of all of it?"
The sage tossed another pinch of snow into the fire. There was a rush of air and above the flames momentarily appeared a blackened jungle and the ravaged remnants of huts. Although the image lasted but a breath, it remained burned in the Beastmaster's head.
"Destiny is happening," Baraji murmured. "And that is why it had to be so long, Beastmaster..."
Dar had heard enough. He had accepted the sage's vague remarks during his studies, seeing in them guides to his own personal search. Now, though, all Dar wanted was explicit answers. Ancor was and had been under assault by demons or some other terrible magical power, and yet Baraji had left him in his trance not just days, weeks, or even months, but -- impossible as it was to believe -- years. All those who Dar had cared for, all those he had sought to protect, might already be dead.
The Beastmaster shivered. Even the ones he most needed now...
"And where are the others?" he demanded, aware that animals did not in general live as long as men. Dar fought to restrain himself from shouting but was sickened at the thought of losing those he considered his family without even knowing of their passing. "Where do they lay now, Baraji? And for how long? When did Sharak fall from the sky, or Ruh, Podo, and Kodo crawl off into the wilderness? Do any of them still live?"
At last the naked figure peered up again. "The Beastmaster without his beasts?" Baraji shook his head. "Destiny demands you all, my pupil, and your friends, of course, would demand to wait for your return..."
He gestured deeper into the cave...where, for the first time, Dar beheld four tranquil white mounds.
Ice coated what had once been soft snow, turning the latter into a crystalline mantle that glittered in the flickering illumination of the tiny fire. Dar could not stifle a gasp. One hand went out to the mounds, then quickly withdrew.
"I feel nothing," he stated baldly. If they were alive, as Baraji had indicated, there should have been something.
Attention again on the flames, the sage commented, "They are merely deep asleep and must be called..."
Brow furrowed, Dar stared at the rounded shapes that were supposed to be his dearest friends. Merely asleep? He doubted that very much, yet clung to the remote hope.
Ruh...the Beastmaster called with his mind, for it was not words with which he generally spoke with the animals, but rather emotions and thought. Ruh...Kodo...Podo...Sharak...
Nothing happened. Dar nearly gave in, but could not accept that they were truly lost to him, not with so much else in turmoil.
Ruh...Dar imagined the powerful, majestic tiger racing through the forest. Kodo...Podo...The wily ferrets had always traveled with him in his pouch, ever ready to lend their skills at thievery for good causes. Sharak...The sentinel in the sky, the magnificent brown eagle, who had always given Dar warning of threat.
Dar felt Baraji's eyes trained on him. Stepping closer, he tried to connect with the four animals as he had always done.
One of the two tiny mounds trembled. Dar held his breath as the mound stilled again...then renewed its shaking. Cracks appeared in the icy snow. From within came scratching, faint at first, then much louder, more active.
An inquisitive black nose broke through to the surface. It twitched several times and focused on where Dar stood.
Kodo smashed his way out of the rest of his chill cocoon, then scurried over to Dar. He leaped into the Beastmaster's waiting arms, nuzzling Dar on the face.
Dar hugged the black and golden brown ferret, then sensed Kodo's desire to be put on the ground again. He understood why.
Kodo ran back to the other small mound, which had also begun to shake. The ferret used his sharp teeth and claws to penetrate the solid glaze. Seconds later, a second ferret -- a female -- emerged and the two animals licked one another happily before racing for Dar.
"Kodo...Podo..." he murmured, his eyes moist. Grateful for their return, he set aside his sword and clutched both ferrets as though they were his children.
As he did, the smaller of the remaining two mounds cracked open at the top. As if emerging from an egg, Sharak thrust his head out and squawked a greeting to the Beastmaster. Then, with a flapping of his wings, the eagle dispersed the rest of the snow and fluttered into the air. Dar let the ferrets climb into the sack that was their home, then held out an arm for the powerful bird.
Sharak landed on the leather guard. Folding his wings, he gave Dar another squawk, and the Beastmaster stroked the bird on the head.
A muffled yet still powerful roar suddenly escaped the depths of the cave. The final mound shook with such vigor that icicles above it broke free, splintering on the ground. A massive, striped tiger surfaced. With a great roar and shudder, Ruh flung the moisture from his sleek fur, baring incisors as long as Dar's hand.
The great cat sniffed the air -- his rich, amber orbs quickly fixing on the Beastmaster. Unlike the others, Ruh strode toward Dar in a most casual manner, as if seeing the human was not so special a matter to so tremendous a cat. Still, the moment he reached Dar, the tiger pressed his face against the Beastmaster's leg and purred like a happy cub.
For a moment, Dar forgot his troubles as he reveled in the animals' return. There were those he loved among humans, but no more than he did these four. But the moment of relief passed quickly.
Dar thought of the thick, black cover over the southern sky, and Ruh and the others quickly registered his concern. The tiger let out a growl of fury and puzzlement, emotions mirrored by the ferrets and Sharak.
His concern only for Ancor now, Dar retrieved his blade and turned to leave. Despite such an incredible length of time without sustenance, miraculously he felt no hunger. With luck, he and the animals could reach better climes before they needed to eat.
As Dar stepped past the fire, Baraji extended his bony hands toward him. In them was a small, oblong stone almost bronze in color with small gold striations in the middle. An iron chain was attached to each end of the stone.
"There is magic in this, my pupil," the skeletal sage murmured. For the first time, Baraji showed a true human concern. "Carry it with you as you seek the truth and your destiny."
Dar had faced magic many times in the past and sensed that Baraji did not exaggerate when it came to the stone. The Beastmaster respectfully accepted the gift. If what he had dreamed was the terrifying truth -- and at this point he had no reason to doubt it -- then he would need anything that his mentor could provide.
The stone felt pleasantly warm in his palms, almost as if he held a small, living creature rather than a simple piece of mineral the size of a thick plum. Dar brought the chain over his neck and let the stone settle on his chest. The warmth above his heart gave him some slight hope.
"What does it do?" he asked.
Baraji shook his head. "It is not what it does, it is what you do -- what you are, Beastmaster."
Grunting at Baraji's typically ambiguous statement, Dar nodded to the sage, then turned. He needed to descend to the lowlands, to see the extent that his nightmares mirrored reality. He needed to see if there was yet something he could do for those below.
With the ferrets at rest in his pouch, Sharak on his arm, and Ruh at his side, the Beastmaster headed for the mouth of the cave. Outside, the wind howled mournfully, as if presaging what Dar would find.
Just before he stepped out into the flying snow, Dar glanced back over his shoulder.
The cadaverous figure was no longer there.
Standing in his place was a handsome young man with hawklike features and hair the color of a raven's feather. The bearded stranger was clad in robes that shimmered with the colors of the rainbow. His face, dark of complexion, was filled with honesty, intelligence, and, most of all, wisdom.
Dar recognized that this was indeed still Baraji.
"Through all else, continue to seek the answers to your own inner quest," the sage calmly remarked, "for it is intertwined with your fate to help all others." Baraji smiled like a father before his son. "And it may be the best hope for all Ancor..."
"What -- ?" was all Dar managed to utter before the wind outside suddenly rushed into the cave, buffeting the Beastmaster and his companions before reaching Baraji. With a gentleness it had not shown for Dar, the wind encircled the robed figure. Baraji smiled wide as he transformed into flakes of snow that were plucked up by the wind and carried out of the cave. At the same time, the gust extinguished the fire.
Stepping outside, the Beastmaster watched as the snowflakes dispersed among the mountains. Dar touched the stone hanging over his chest and felt in it a hint of his mentor's presence.
Dar hefted his sword and let Sharak take to the sky. The eagle circled once, then, with a mighty cry, headed in the direction of the trail descending the side of the peak.
Taking a deep breath, the Beastmaster charged through the cold and snow, already wondering how he -- a lone warrior with questionable magical abilities -- might be able to combat the titanic fury engulfing what seemed all of Ancor.
Assuming that it was not already far, far too late to do anything at all.