The Balance of the Rose
New Orleans, Louisiana 1885 (in an alternate reality)
The normal sights and sounds of Bourbon Street, in the heart of the French Quarter, were intensified during the Mardi Gras season. The frenzy and debauchery of Carnival had slowly built to a crescendo over the weekend before Fat Tuesday. The crowds were swollen to capacity in the bars and houses of ill repute and the patrons were reveling in their drunkenness. All manner of masks and costumes from the fantastic to the macabre were on display on the streets of the French Quarter.
One man, however, had not partaken of the festival atmosphere, or donned a costume or wore a mask. He was carefully picking his way through the crowded streets and around the passed out revelers. He was on a mission to stop a mid-level disturbance in the normal flow of time.
Reginald Ravensblade, Harpist of Time, was dressed in what would pass for normal attire in New Orleans of the late 19th Century, although that was not his intent. Even the sword at his belt was not uncommon amongst the aristocracy of the famous city. Not the rapier fancied by the upper-crust of New Orleans' society but a rather more functional longsword.
He was looking for a specific location; the business address of one Marie Laveau II, undisputed Voodoo High Priestess of New Orleans and the apparent source of the disturbance. Rumors abounded that she had in her possession a very powerful gris-gris or talisman. Reginald wanted to inspect the talisman and see what it was about.
It seemed that Miss Laveau had been tampering with the normal flow of time, a very big no-no in Timekeeper's book, 'Timekeeper' being the name of his sword, a magical sword whose particular focus was time, and therefore in Reg's as well. She had been using her talisman to see into the future and with the misbegotten knowledge changed said future by affecting the present. She was also using it to tap into the flow of Eldritch causing changes that were outside her normal abilities. Reg very much wanted to inspect that talisman!
Reg had finally reached his destination and stopped in front of 'Maison Blanche', the reported home of said Voodoo Priestess. He looked left and right and finally up at the two large negro men standing on the front porch in front of the double doors, The men portrayed an imposing presence, feet spread and arms crossed, on the lookout for trouble.
"Keep walking mister, there is nothing for you to see here," the Negro on the left called out in challenge.
Reg smiled but climbed the steps to the front porch. A quick flip of his wrist and both men slid down the wall unconscious. Reg looked at them, smiled again, and entered the establishment.
The pungent smell of incense and the Gods knew what else assaulted Reg's nostrils, requiring him to pull a hanky from a pocket and hold it over his nose as a filter. He was standing in the front room or parlor of this establishment, part tea room and part house of ill repute. Not that tea was ever actually served here. In the local vernacular, tea room meant something entirely different. This was a place to come to if you wanted your palm read, or an interpretation of the tarot cards, or tea leaves, or a potion or charm, or knowledge of the future.
Reg had barely enough time to orient himself before a side door opened and an old Negro man stepped out and toward him shaking some kind of chicken foot stick with feathers on it.
The man was dressed in a black suit, of the kind one would wear to a funeral, compete with black stovepipe hat. He wore a necklace of old, bleached white, bones of some animal. His face was painted in the design of a skeleton as were his exposed arms and hands. He was speaking a cross dialect of Creole French and Slave African and it took Reg a moment to translate it in his head. More importantly he could feel power building from that "Voodoo stick". Reg had little time to react so he did the only thing that came to mind.
"Et!" He commanded while drawing his sword.
The man froze, bound by three blue Eldritch rings. Reg heard a cough and wheeze to his right and pivoted toward the noise, adopting a defensive position.
"Ah, you be knowing dem words of power," said an old Negro woman as she entered the parlor from the front door. "You must be knowing de Shadowman and de Dragonlady den?"
She was dressed fashionably in a black dress with a gold trimmed shawl draped over her shoulders. Her hair was held up by a floral scarf that matched the shawl. The only thing out of the place was the necklace of animal bones with a gold medallion as the pendant. Reg could feel Eldritch emanating from the medallion, strong emanations. He had found his irregularity.
"Miss Marie Laveau, I presume?" Reg tapped into the faint flow of Eldritch and began drawing power.
"I be Marie Laveau," she said, giving him the evil eye and reaching up to finger the pendant. "What do de Shadowman want with me?"
"Tell me about the Shadowman and the Dragonlady," Reg pointed to a chair with the tip of his sword. "And please move your hand away from the enchanted medallion."
Marie smiled but complied with his order and sat down in one of several chairs in the sitting room. This man had power and he also intrigued her. She decided to humor him until she could gain the upper hand.
"Where do I start?" Marie looked at him with a twinkle in her eye and dropped the fake accent. "I did not know them of course, but my Maw-Maw knew them in France. There is a portrait of them on the wall over there."
Reg turned to where she was pointed and had to catch himself from falling to the floor in shock. The portrait showed a very beautiful young lady standing next to his truest friend, Aaron Whiterune! Almost as shocking as finding a portrait of Aaron was the fact that the second woman in the portrait was Tanith! The same Tanith that he himself had helped entomb.
"Where was this painted?" Reg whispered, turning back toward Marie.
"Lyon, France," Marie replied. "My mother told me stories about him, passed down from her mother. He had a sword very similar to the one you hold. He gave my Maw-Maw this token, said it held magical properties. That it would protect her and hers."
"Your grandmother's name?" Reg whispered, heart pounding in his chest.
"Marianne Carriere," she replied and shrugged.
"The year?" Reg asked, recovering from the shock of the discovery.
"1749, or 1750. I am not quite sure," Marie replied while slowly gathering her power in an attempt to snare him.
"Oh, I do not think so, Voodoo Queen," Reg quickly moved his hands and spoke the word for the rune of command, "Nathamdose".
Marie's hands dropped to her side as she looked at him with death in her eyes.
"You do not frighten me, Voodoo Queen," Reg chuckled as he approached her. "I have seen Death in many of its guises. Your look has no power over me."
"I have come for this," Reg reached over and grabbed the medallion and with a quick tug broke the chain holding it.
The pieces of bone clattered to the floor as he held up the medallion for her to see. "This trinket should not have come into your possession. I thank you for the information as well. I will be taking the portrait, however. Do not fret; when I leave my power will dissipate."
Reg inspected the solid gold medallion and recognized the rune of control from his sword's pommel on one side and an unfamiliar rune on the reverse. The rune looked like a set of scales in perfect balance. There was also a vine of roses circling the outside edge of both sides of the coin. He pocketed the gold token and levitated the portrait off of the wall and placed it in a leather bag that should not have been large enough to hold the painting.
"Lyon, France, circa 1749 you say?" Reg turned to her and bowed. "Hail and well met, Marie Laveau."
"Timekeeper, Lyon France, 1749, please," he directed his sword.
"My Lord?!" the sword replied.
"If he gave one medallion, he may have given more," Reg replied to the unasked question and protest. "It is for the good of the Mythos."
Marie watched as an opening appeared in the middle of her parlor. She shook her head as if she could not quite believe what she was seeing. A black starry night in the middle of her parlor? The man stepped through the doorway which closed as she felt the compulsion fade away. She looked over as Marcelo shook his hands trying to return the circulation.
"Close the house," Marie ordered her henchman, fingering her neck where the amulet once lay. "I am feeling rather indisposed."
Lyon France, spring 1749.
Timekeeper opened a gate in an alley off of the main thoroughfare so as to not attract attention. Reg took a moment to orient himself before entering the flow of traffic and letting it carry him along as he planned his next move. The painting was unsigned but he held hope that someone would recognize the technique or brush stroke and point him in the direction of the artist. He planned to visit the artist district and show the painting around and hope someone knew who painted it. He did not expect that Aaron would step out of a shop and cross the street with Tanith on his arm right in front of him, but as luck would have it that is exactly what happened.
"Aaron?" Reg called out as he approached his friend.
The man that Reg identified as Aaron slowly turned toward Reg and moved to position himself between Reg and the woman at his side.
Mann and Karith and just left a shop where Karith was looking at jewelry when Mann encountered what he feared might one day happen. Fear was perhaps the wrong word, since he did not fear the appearance of The Creator, but he did not look forward to the meeting either. He did not expect the event to happen so soon after finishing his business in this realm, and he definitely did not expect it to happen at the hands of his one-time friend. Dao's reach was far indeed and if he thought that Mann was going to come along quietly or that having Reg along would make things easier than he had another thing coming. Maybe if he played it right, Reg might not recognize him and they could get out of the encounter without bloodshed.
"You are mistaken friend, my name is Mann," the man replied, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword and scanning the area for threats.
Reg studied the man that he knew to be Aaron and recognized the color of his hair, the tilt of the brow and the point of the ear. Not to mention the black cord bound in his hair signifying his SwordMaster status. There was no doubt that this man was in fact Aaron Whiterune, Prince of Tarra.
"No matter what you call yourself now, I knew you first by your adopted name of Aaron Blackmoon and then later when you took your birth name of Whiterune," Reg replied, a small smile on his face.
"That name holds no meaning for me now, Harpist," Mann countered gripping his sword tighter, preparing to draw and attack if his next question was not answered to his satisfaction. "Why are you here?"
"Come, let us find a nice, quiet place to talk," Reg suggested and turned toward a café across the street from where they were standing.
"I am not going anywhere with you, Reg," Mann replied with a feral grin, partially drawing his sword from its scabbard. "Not until I know whose agent you are."
"Time's, Mann," Reg replied over his shoulder and shrugged. "That at least has not changed. Come, you were heading toward the café anyway, what harm could there be?"
"What harm indeed," Mann countered and began drawing power.
Karith placed her hand on Mann's sword hand and pressed the sword back into its scabbard. Mann finally nodded and he and Karith followed warily while continuing to watch for any unusual activity on the busy street. The interplay between Mann and the woman, that he thought was Tanith, was not lost on Reg.
"Caledor, I would know if he happens to show up," Mann directed his sword. "It matters not who created you; your loyalty is to me."
"That was never in question, My Lord. You have true named me and we are as one," the sword replied forcibly. "I will alert you if he or any of his agents are near."
That last statement assured Mann that Reg was not in league with the Creator or at least not knowingly so. They followed Reg into the café and toward the back where he stopped at a likely table. Mann held the chair across from Reg for Karith and after she sat he took the chair to her right and placed his back against the wall. Mann scanned the crowd for threats and the area for possible withdrawal routes. He felt uneasy out in the open and had spent two lifetimes now respecting those feelings. He was exposed and his senses were looking for adversaries.
"You see, I have learned my lessons well," Reg announced and smiled as the waiter showed up and took their drink order. "I have been looking all over the known, and not so known, universe for you and it is good to see you. I was however, quite taken back by Tanith's presence. I interred her several lifetimes ago, which gives me pause to wonder?"
"I am Karith, Master Reginald," Karith replied and reached out with her hand in greeting. "Daughter of a Toledo master swordsmith."
"My apologies, my lady," Reg replied gently grasping her hand in greeting and was ill prepared for the power he felt there. "I was mistaken, but the likeness is indeed eerie. It is interesting that you know my name."
"No apologies necessary, for I am Tanith as well," she replied with a smile and gently retrieved her hand. "It is a long story."
"If you truly are Tanith, then you know how I love long stories," Reg chuckled while watching Aaron intently, who kept glancing around. "What is wrong, my friend?"
"Just making sure you were not followed," Mann briefly looked at Reg before returning to his area scan. "You have not explained why you are here. More importantly, how did you find me?"
"From a portrait held by a descendent of a Marianne Carriere."
"Interesting. We just sat for a portrait a few days ago!" Karith exclaimed. "As a matter of fact, we are meeting her here soon."
"Yes, well, I will gain possession of it in about 136 years from now," Reg smiled as he replied. "Which reminds me, Mann have you given any other enchanted tokens away."
"What? No, as a matter of fact I have not given any away as of yet."
"Well, Marianne's granddaughter was using one for nefarious purposes, but I have reclaimed it," he explained while sliding it across the table. "Please be careful to whom you give powerful talismans. She was using it to alter time."
"I will keep that in mind," Mann nodded, looking at the good token and then slipping it into his pocket. "So is that why you are here, to stop me from giving Marianne this token?"
"No, well, yes and no. I am really here because of an oath given on the day you disappeared. I promised Princess Dana, well Queen at that point, that I would find you and bring you back."
"What if I do not wish to be found or brought back? I have a different life now, one with Karith. One significantly more than a thief or a prince or even a king."
"It will not last; he will not allow it to last."
"We will see about that. I have become more than he had ever intended, with enough of my memories intact to thwart any plan he might have," Mann's smile caused Reg an involuntary shiver. "There are several factions in play, Reg, he is but one and possibly not even the most powerful."
"My Lord, be careful, the Runesword at his hip is strange and I cannot fathom it," Timekeeper warned his lord. "It is powerful, more than I, possibly even more than the Hand of Death."
"Perhaps, Timekeeper, it is because I do not want you to fathom it. If you continue to pry I will have to command you. You will not like that."
Meldriran's rune on Mann's right wrist glowed, highlighting a second rune above it, as he admonished the sword mentally. Reg saw the glow and recognized both runes from the medallion he had just slid across the table.
"Control your sword, Harpist of Time, or I will," Mann angrily chided Reg, and then felt Karith's hand on his.
He looked over to her as she gently shook her head and he slowly nodded in reply. Again, the interplay was not lost on Reg.
"You can hear and communicate with my sword?" Reg asked in shock as he felt a quiver from the sword at his hip.
"Not just your sword, Reg," Mann replied, his emotions in check again. "But, that is for another time; right now I am more concerned with your intentions."
"Karith, you said it was a long story?" Reg asked, trying to turn the discussion away from its original path, while looking at Mann in a new light.
"Mann, Marianne is not here yet; do we have time to tell him?" Karith asked, gently squeezing Mann's hand in hers. "It might help him understand."
"Time? Reg can ensure that there is more than enough," Mann sighed and nodded. "Perhaps a story is just what we need..."