The Shadow of the Rose
Copyright© 2012 by R22CoolGuy
The room was a hall, not unlike the throne room in Aithen. It was separated into three segments by large intricately carved ivory columns, with alcoves on both sides of the hall and a large dais at the far end. Suits of armor bearing the bounding hart heraldry stood between the alcoves. The outer aisles held chests overflowing with gold, platinum, and other precious metals, intermixed with chests overflowing with precious gems, jewelry and other trinkets.
Armor, swords, and other instruments of war filled several of the alcoves. Aaron thought they must be enchanted in some fashion, since he could feel them pulsing with power. Most of the alcoves however, contained crypts for the dead. The crypt alcoves had white wrought metal scalloped gates, the alcoves holding treasure did not.
At the far end, placed on the dais, apparently arranged in some specific pattern, were several black stone blocks, with sword hilts sticking out of them. The stones were arranged in clusters, each cluster on its own separate raised platform.
In the center closest to the back wall on the highest platform rested a single stone with a hand-and-a-half sword hilt sticking out. Just in front of that, on a shorter extension of the same platform were two stones diagonally in line with the center stone without hilts. A few feet in front of that was another platform lower than the first, but higher than the extension. Two stones sat on that platform, the stone to the left slightly higher. Diagonally to the left and right of that platform were two more platforms, slightly lower, containing three stones of equal height. Eleven stones in all, nine of which contained swords. All the hilts were single handed except the one protruding from the stone on the highest platform.
"Black Rose, what is this place?" Aaron asked, placing his hand on the sword's pommel.
"This is the Hall of Kings, My Lord," the sword replied. "It is both treasure hall, and mausoleum, for the Kings of Tarra."
"What is it doing in the catacombs under this castle?" Aaron asked. "This is not a Tarran castle."
"No, My Lord, this is most definitely not a Tarran castle, but it is a place of safety," Red Rose interjected, forcibly. "The hall has no home while the Rose Throne is empty. It moves to places of secrecy and security."
"Why is the throne empty?" Aaron asked. "I thought my mother was Queen before she died. Surely there has been a succession by now."
"The Rose Throne has been empty for nearly an age, My Lord," Red Rose replied. "It was lost before the banishment. A replica is used now."
"Before the banishment?" Aaron asked incredulously. "And it has never been found? Do you know where it is?"
"It has never been found," Red Rose replied. "And we do not know where it is, or exactly when it disappeared."
"Hmm, are those actual swords in those stones?" Aaron asked, eyeing the stones with sword hilts sticking out.
"Yes, My Lord," Black Rose replied. "They are Runeswords and are resting in their runestones. When a Runesword has no wielder, it must return to its stone. Or the sword's wielder may put the sword back, relinquishing the bond of sword and wielder."
"So when a sword is in its stone, it cannot come out by itself?" Aaron asked.
"No, My Lord," Black Rose answered, with a little trepidation. "The sword is in stasis. Unable to interact within the realm, it has no power. It is without thought or action."
"So, those two empty stones are yours?" he asked both swords.
"Yes, My Lord, they are," Red Rose answered, with a slight trepidation in its voice. "Why do you ask, My Lord?"
"So, my birth mother came here, and pulled Black Rose from its stone?" Aaron asked.
"Not exactly, My Lord," Black Rose clarified. "The hall was in Tarra at the time. She brought you to the hall as an infant, placed your hand on my pommel and pulled me forth, bonding us together. It was a partial bond, since we did not exchange oaths. When you called upon me thrice, that completed the bond."
"So, Red Rose and I did not actually bond until I commanded it with a high sword command?" Aaron asked, beginning to understand.
"Exactly, My Lord," Red Rose replied. "I was bonded to your sister, but not to you until then."
"Wait, you said that when a sword has no wielder, it must return to its stone, but Red Rose, you did not, why?" Aaron asked.
"A good question, My Lord," Red Rose acknowledged. "Black Rose and I are tied to the Rose Throne, and therefore only heirs to the throne can wield us. Since you were there when your sister passed, I was able to stay with you when you accepted me."
While the mental conversation progressed, Reg was busy looking for the black box containing the scrying stone, while Rac-Nur was on alert, protecting Aaron while he stared off into space.
With the discussion at an end, they approached the dais and Aaron notice two familiar statues standing on either side of the steps, carved from ivory. The hulking shapes were covered in scales, with taloned hands, pointed ears flat against their skulls, bald with the exception of a single braided stalk of hair in the center of the back of their heads. Aaron did not know what race the beings depicted were, but they appeared to be either reptilian, or possibly demonic.
"Black Rose, I have seen those figures before, only they were alive," Aaron explained. "Who, or what, are they?"
"That is a question that I am forbidden to answer, My Lord," Black Rose replied.
Further discussion concerning the statues was placed on hold, for at that moment a deep, rasping voice echoed throughout the hall, causing the adventurers to shiver, as if someone had walked across their graves.
"BEHOLD, MY SALVATION IS AT HAND."
A shape began to materialize above the highest runestone. A sword appeared above the dais, hilt up.
"I AM DEATHBRINGER, THE HAND OF DEATH," echoed throughout the hall. "HAIL, AND WELL MET, WITCHLORD."
Aaron felt a slight tremor at his hips as he looked on in awe at the apparition. It was a bastard sword, with downward curved quillions, hand-and-a-half grip, and a wheel, (or ball) pommel. A single rune was carved into the blade, the same rune that was carved in the doors of the hall. The hilt was unadorned, no gem shone in the wheel pommel. It was, in all appearances, a simple bastard sword, of no great value.
The sword was not actually there. They could see right through it, so it was some kind of astral projection. A glow of silvery light shone all around it.
"COME UP, WITCHLORD, GRASP MY HANDLE AND PULL ME FREE, IT IS YOUR BIRTHRIGHT," the sword commanded.
Shifting its voice so as not to reverberate, it continued, "Free me WitchLord, and we will avenge your ancestors," Deathbringer proclaimed. "Free me, and together we will restore the Empire of the Rose."
"It is a tempting offer, Deathbringer," Aaron replied stepping up to the dais.
"It is no offer, WitchLord," Deathbringer replied. "It is your right, your heritage."
"Speaking of heritage, what happens to my swords if I pull you from the stone?" Aaron asked.
"You cannot wield me with and any other, WitchLord," Deathbringer explained. "You would have to return them to their stones."
Again, Aaron felt a tremor from his hips. Aaron took another step toward the runestone.
"Aaron, do not! Wait!" Lady Rannath called out, entering the hall from the open doorway and approaching Aaron. With her was Lord Azrael, God of Shadows.
"Well, if it is not the Betrayer, herself," Deathbringer proclaimed. "Tread carefully, Witch, I am not without power within these walls!"
"Lady Rannath, what are you doing here?" Aaron turned and addressed her.
"Yes, why have you returned to the scene of your betrayal?" Deathbringer asked.
"To try and stop you from making a mistake," Lady Rannath answered.
Rac-Nur bowed to Lord Azrael and positioned himself between Aaron and the two Gods. Meanwhile, Reg was looking intently at the highest stone on the second highest dais, and paying the assembled group little attention.
"Lady Rannath, what mistake?" Aaron asked. "And why does Deathbringer, as well as my swords refer to you, and the other Gods for that matter, as betrayers?"
"What, he does not know?" Deathbringer asked astonished. "You have not told him?"
"Told me what?" Aaron replied. "Will someone tell me what is going on?"
"Do not listen to it, Aaron," Lady Rannath begged. "It will distort the truth, to its own end."
"I will not lie. The truth is much more damning," Deathbringer responded with a chuckle. A chuckle that caused an involuntary shudder from all those present.
"You will manipulate the information for your own gain," Lady Rannath replied.
"No, Witch, now you have me confused with a Thangdaemon," Deathbringer replied. "I cannot lie to my wielder."
"True, but I am not your wielder, either," Aaron countered.
"You are wise, WitchLord," Deathbringer conceded. "Perhaps, if you were to place your hand on my pommel, I could show you the time in question."
"Is that not the first step in bonding, Deathbringer?" Aaron asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes, wise indeed," Deathbringer replied. "How can we resolve this? Fine. Black Rose, you are released from the law and may answer your wielder completely."
"Yes, Lord," Black Rose replied, answering Deathbringer.
"My Lord, she betrayed her betrothed, your ancestor, to further her own ambitions," Black Rose spat the words out as if they had left a bad taste in its mouth.
"That is not how it was," Lady Rannath cried. "Aaron, you have to understand what the circumstances were."
"Did you, or did you not, counsel your betrothed to place his sword in its stone?" Deathbringer accused. "Thereby offering him up to his enemies."
"What sword?" Aaron asked. "I do not understand any of this."
"Me! WitchLord! Me!" Deathbringer replied. "She was betrothed to Sinthar Whiterune, your forefather, the King of Tarra, and all of Andor. There was a war and she sided with his enemies."
"Aaron, wait! Let me explain," Lady Rannath moved toward Aaron and then stopped short when Rac-Nur brought his weapons up.
"There were three great races in the early years of Andor. The Tarrans ruled this land and were at war with their western neighbors the Elfen. The members of my race, Thangdaemon, were more interested in the acquisition of power, and knowledge, than land, or things. Some sided with the Tarrans and some sided with the Elfen. As a princess of my people, in an attempt to strengthen relations, I was betrothed to the young King of the Tarrans."
"The war was tearing the land in two, and it was feared it would ultimately tear the very fabric of time," Rannath continued. "Deathbringer was counseling the King on how best to accomplish that."
"Lies! That would never have happened," Deathbringer interjected. "Timekeeper would not have allowed it. You promoted the worst case scenario to scare others and garner power onto yourselves, just like all progressives."
"'Tis true, My Lord," Black Rose said. "Timekeeper would have prevented that."
"Fine, we did not know that at the time," Rannath deferred. "Anyway, Sinthar, counseled by Deathbringer, had even challenged our Gods. My father and his council were afraid that the 'Three that are One' would smite us all and start over."
"You forget, Witch, that I would have prevented that," Deathbringer replied. "It was why I was created. The Hand of Death is the ultimate balance."
"Wait, who are the 'Three that are One'?" Aaron asked.
"They are the Gods that created this world and the three races," Deathbringer replied. "They are; Melvina, Driscoll, and Randolf. They are siblings and act in unison."
"Wait, I met a woman named Melvina," Aaron replied. "She said she was the handmaiden, or her name meant handmaiden. At least I think I did, it may have been a dream. She also said she had brothers."
"That would be her then," Deathbringer replied. "I did not counsel my wielder to challenge the Gods. The brothers came to him. They wanted power over their sister, who they thought had grown to powerful."
"My father thought that the only way to stop the war, was to stop the Tarrans, to stop Sinthar," Rannath tried to explain. "And the only way to do that was to stop Deathbringer, by placing it in its stone."
"So you betrayed your betrothed," Deathbringer stated, "and in the process, bargained for power and accession to a higher plane. It is what I have always maintained."
"WitchLord, release me from my stone, and smite her!" Deathbringer screamed. "It is your destiny! We will avenge the betrayal of all these so-called Gods. And then, we will have a reckoning with the 'Three that are One'. They played a dangerous game and should be called to account."
"Aaron, do not," Rannath pleaded. "Not for me, but for you. Deathbringer will kill you."
"That is not true, Rannath." Aaron accused. "No Runesword can cause its wielder harm, can it, Black Rose? That is a sword law."
"You are correct, My Lord," Black Rose replied. "Except the law does not apply to Lord Deathbringer."
"How is that?" Aaron asked. "You said all Runeswords were bound by the law."
"First there was Lord Deathbringer, and then there was the law," Black Rose spoke as if quoting from some ancient tome. "Lord Deathbringer is bound only to uphold the first law."
"And that is?" Aaron asked.
"Death comes for us all, in the end," Deathbringer and Black Rose spoke in unison, again sounding as if quoting from some ancient tome.
"Even to mighty WitchLords that wield mighty swords," Deathbringer replied, solemnly.
"WitchLord, pull me from the stone and everything will be revealed to you," Deathbringer explained. "You will know all, and yes, at some point I will come for you. But in the end, do we not all pass on?"
Aaron took another step toward Deathbringer's runestone, when he was pulled up short by the voice of his dead mother.
"Do not be a pawn to others' ambitions, my son," the wraith of Lady Tara, Duchess of Realto said. "Make your own way in this, and in all things."
"So, you finally weigh in on the discussion, Azrael," Deathbringer accused. "You play a dangerous game, dabbling within my realm. There will be an accounting, rest assured. WitchLord, that is not your mother; it is only a memory."
"Maybe so, but that is what she would say," Aaron sighed. "Deathbringer, I am a simple thief, and my own man. I am not some great avenger. You will need to find another to help you fight your fights. I have become attached to my swords, and want to keep it that way."