The Shadow of the Rose
Chapter 8

Copyright© 2012 by R22CoolGuy

Aaron waited until about midnight to make his night excursion. Throwing the hood of his cloak up and stepping into the shadows of his room, he shifted to the Shadow Realm.

Travel through the Shadow Realm was different, since it was all line of sight. He didn't have to worry about doors, halls, streets or alleyways. Stairs were interesting though, because he had to consciously think about them or he couldn't climb. A swirling mist made navigation slow as he labored, breathing in and out the thick, moist air. He walked by guards on the Material plane who never knew he passed by. Walking through walls caused a weird sensation, like walking through a viscous barrier, with a slight resistance. The denizens of the realm trailed him at a respectful distance.

His destination was the middle city, and the home of Carlos de Ponce. Something Lord Azrael said about the realm had given Aaron an idea on how best to deal with Master Carlos. Gaining access to the home was a simple matter of passing through the front door.

The home of Carlos de Ponce was a two-story affair in the residential district of the middle city. Entering the foyer, Aaron passed two guards stationed at the bottom of the stairs. Paying them little mind, he concentrated on climbing to the second floor, where he found a hallway with several doors to each side and a double set at the end. Guessing that the double doors led to the master's chambers, he passed through the doors.

Master De Ponce slept soundly in a large bed as Aaron concentrated and reached over and grasped him, pulling him into the Shadow Realm. Master Carlos awoke and screamed in terror as Aaron released him. Several wraiths and stalkers descended upon him sucking his life force from him.

Carlos de Ponce died screaming and thrashing about in terror. His dead body lay at Aaron's feet, back arched, arms and legs flung out, muscles locked in death, a look of pure terror frozen on his face, eyes nearly popped from their sockets. Aaron grasped the body and removed his hood, shifting back to the Material plane.

Aaron placed the body back in bed and for once did not leave a rose on the body. It was more important that it looked as if De Ponce died of heart failure, or some other natural cause. Aaron searched the bed chamber for anything of value, and then pulled up his hood and shifted back to the Shadow Realm looking for any secret passages or hidey-holes.

Having satisfied himself that none existed, Aaron left the room and headed back downstairs and to the office of the recently deceased Merchant Master. A search of the office turned up nothing useful so Aaron left and returned to the palace and his bed.

Aaron and Rac-Nur were up early the next morning, working out at the practice arena under the watchful eye of the palace Swordmaster. Aaron and Rac-Nur sparred as a unit against crack fighters of the Royal Guard. The Swordmaster called a halt to the session after a grueling hour of combat. He bid Aaron and Rac-Nur a good morning, and then cracked the whip on the guard, who hadn't fared well against the pair. As they cooled down and washed, Aaron noticed Lady Laura, flanked by her two bodyguards, along with Lady Colleen, watching the practice. Smiling, he approached and bowed, sweeping his right arm back.

"Good morning, Lady Laura, Lady Colleen," Aaron smiled, and stood. "What are your plans for this fine morning?"

"I plan to do a little shopping," she smiled shyly. "Colleen will accompany me."

"Will you require my assistance, fair lady?" Aaron asked. "I can accompany you, if you desire."

"That will not be necessary, Master Whiterune," Lady Laura replied. "I have my bodyguards, and I plan to stay in the middle city."

"Very well, Lady Laura," Aaron nodded, reaching into his cloak. "Please accept this enchanted gold piece. If you are ever in need, just hold it and I will know that you require assistance. The King stressed to me the importance of keeping you safe, and I take my responsibilities seriously. Please be careful when you are outside of the palace."

"My bodyguards will keep me safe, Master Whiterune," Lady Laura replied, a little hotly. "I have no need of magical items."

"As you wish, my lady," Aaron bowed again, putting the coin away. "Have a fine day, shopping."

Aaron and Rac-Nur withdrew, to their quarters to get cleaned up for the day.

"He thinks he is so important," Lady Laura exclaimed, exasperated.

"Perhaps, my lady, he truly worries about your safety," Colleen explained.

"Please, I have two of the best bodyguards in Malkur," Lady Laura replied. "Everyone knows Malkurian Guards are the best in the five realms."

"I must disagree with you, my lady," Michele, one of her bodyguards interrupted. "Rene and I would not last very long against him, and he was holding back. Those Royal Guards are some of the best and they have a few Malkurian Guards mixed in as well, and they did not stand a chance against him. Add to that the dark elf, who was a first sword of his clan, and they would be an unstoppable force. Do not dismiss him, or his abilities. He will tip the scales in our advantage if we are attacked."

"Are you saying that you are not the best?" Lady Laura asked, clearly disgusted.

"My lady, please forgive me. In our line of work, only a fool does not recognize a skilled craftsman," Rene explained. "I do not believe there is anyone in Malkur that could take him, one-on-one."

"Maybe not two-on-one," Michele added. "And remember, my lady, he was holding back. He will make an excellent addition."

"Fine! I will try to be nicer to him," Lady Laura conceded. "Now, can we please go shopping?"

There was a messenger from the Merchants' Guild waiting for Aaron when he returned to his quarters. The Guildmaster requested his presence at the guildhall, as soon as it was convenient for Master Whiterune. Aaron sent a response back that he would be there within an hour. Aaron and Rac-Nur dressed and left for the lower city and the Merchants' Guild.

Before entering the Guild Quarter, Aaron brought Rac-Nur to the Merchant Quarter and stopped in front of the 'Golden Pony'. He told Rac-Nur that if they were ever separated, or if Rac-Nur was ever in need that he should come to the 'Golden Pony' and seek out the innkeeper Raymond. He was to tell Raymond who he was and his relationship to Aaron. As proof of his claims he was to give Raymond one of Aaron's engraved gold coins with the crossed roses on it. Rac-Nur nodded in understanding and took the coin and put it away. They left the Merchant Quarter and headed over to the Guild Quarter and the home of the Merchants' Guild.

When they arrived at the guild, they were escorted into the Guildmaster's office, where they met with Master Gerard and Marcus, the assistant to the late Master Carlos.

"Master Whiterune, so good of you to come on such short notice," Master Gerard began. "You remember Marcus, assistant to Master Carlos de Ponce? I wanted to be the first to tell you that Master Carlos died in his sleep last night, leaving no heirs of majority age."

"So, what does that mean in regards to my bid of ownership, or the debt credits I hold?" Aaron asked.

"The estate must make good on all outstanding debts," Master Gerard replied. "Unfortunately, there is insufficient capital or assets to cover the debts. The Guild Council will meet today to determine the best course of action. I wanted to talk to you first, so that your desires could be brought before the Council. What are your desires, milord?"

"I would trade the markers for a majority portion in the house," Aaron replied smiling. "I understand the late Master Carlos has a daughter, I intend for the rest of the portions to be hers."

"Master Whiterune, you potentially hold enough markers to own the house outright," Master Gerard stated. "There would be no reason to divide the assets with his minor child."

"Nevertheless, those are my wishes," Aaron replied. "She will have a minority stake in her father's house. The exact split can be determined by the Council. Something along the lines of 60:40 or so would be sufficient, I think."

"Very well, milord," Master Gerard nodded, smiling. "A most generous offer! I will convey your wishes to the Council."

"What of me, Master Whiterune?" Marcus asked. "I have been loyal to House De Ponce, even to the point of disagreeing repeatedly with Master de Ponce over his gambling and poor investments. I could be of service in this period of transition."

"I will keep you on for a trial period," Aaron replied. "If you prove valuable to me, then more permanent arrangements will be made. But know this, if you cheat me, your life will be forfeit."

"Those terms will be acceptable to me," Marcus replied. "I will not cheat you, or advise you poorly."

"Master Whiterune, will you change the name of the house?" Master Gerard asked.

"Yes. I intend to call it De la Rose," Aaron replied. "I also intend to move its headquarters to Malkur, but will maintain the holdings here."

After going over the worth of the house and how much debt Aaron held, Master Gerard thanked them for coming in. He then called a meeting of the Merchants' Guild leadership, to discuss the transfer of ownership, before the Council meeting. They agreed to wait until the final outcome of the Council meeting before going through the books. Aaron told Marcus he would stop by later and pay his respects to Miss Anastasia. Aaron and Rac-Nur left the guildhall.

Aaron and Rac-Nur left the guildhall and travelled up to the middle city, where they spotted Lady Laura and her entourage leaving a dress shop. Aaron was on his way to intercept her, when he noticed two men paying the shopping group entirely too much attention. Nudging Rac-Nur, Aaron faded back into the crowd and observed the observers.

Aaron's tracking skills, developed and honed during his time as a Ranger, served him well on the crowded streets of the shop district. The two men were tailing Lady Laura's group at a respectful distance, Aaron noted. Aaron also noticed that while the bodyguards were attentive to the area immediately around Lady Laura, their tunnel vision hampered their overall effectiveness.

His old tracking master called it, "Not seeing the forest for the trees." And it definitely applied to this situation. Aaron waited to see what the men were up to, and put himself in a position to intercede if they tried to attack Lady Laura's group. Their demeanor suggested a reconnaissance mission instead of a tactical engagement. The problem with tailing them was Rac-Nur stood out like a sore thumb. If the two men got a look at him, Aaron was afraid they would break off before he could determine their true intentions.

The men continued to watch and trail the group as they went in and out of several different stops. Aaron and Rac-Nur continued to watch the two men. Aaron was also on the lookout for any additional watchers and could find none. Eventually, Lady Laura's group finished shopping and made their way to the upper city and the palace. The two men broke off the tail when the group entered the palace grounds. Aaron was worried that the men did not leave anyone to watch the palace, so he concluded that they must have "eyes" inside the palace watching her. Aaron motioned for Rac-Nur to return to the palace and protect Lady Laura at all costs, while he would go and find out more about the men, and their intentions. Rac-Nur nodded his understanding and Aaron turned and followed the two men out of the upper city.

As soon as it was feasibly possible, Aaron stepped into the shadow of a nearby building, pulled up his hood and shifted to the Shadow Realm.

Smiling a feral grin, he closed the distance considerably and trailed the men out of the middle city and into the lower city, towards the Central Quarter.

Rac-Nur entered the palace and followed the group to the south wing and the guest quarters. Lady Laura and entourage entered her private quarters, while Rac-Nur took up station just outside the door. A few moments later Lady Laura opened the door to leave, finding her way blocked by Rac-Nur.

"Step aside, I have somewhere to go," she commanded the dark elf.

He just continued to stare at her which enflamed her anger, "I said, STEP ASIDE!"

"Shoc-Ti said you should wait inside until he returns," Rac-Nur explained. "You were followed while shopping. He is finding out why, Do what he says, he protects your life. Stay inside until he tells you different."

"Ooh, I have never..." she sputtered and then screamed, unable to utter an intelligent word. She slammed the door and Rac-Nur placed his hand, palm out against the door knob. A brief spark and flash of magic, and the knob was fused shut. He turned and faced the hall, with a small smile on his face.

The only downside to the Shadow Realm was that noises, including voices, did not carry over from the Material Plane. Aaron needed to find an inconspicuous place to cross back over to the Material Plane, when the men entered a rundown taproom. Entering the taproom himself, he made his way to the back corner and pulled off his cloak hood, shifting back to the Material Plane.

Slowly staggering toward the front, he spied the men sitting at a table with a third man and abruptly fell into a chair at a nearby table, trying to listen in on the conversation. He couldn't make out the features of the third man because of the hooded cloak he wore, but Aaron was able to hear the conversation.

"And you are sure she was not being followed by anyone?" the mystery man asked.

"No, milord," replied one of the men, possibly the leader. "We followed her throughout the middle city, in and out of various shops. The bodyguards were with her at all times. It would be difficult to abduct her with them around."

"That is not your concern," replied the mystery man. "I wanted to know if anyone else followed or watched her."

"No, milord, only us," the leader replied.

"There is going to be a farewell party in her honor the day after tomorrow. Her schedule has her leaving in three days. I want her followed and her actions reported to me, daily. I want to know if anyone else is involved with her protection."

"Milord, our source in the palace reports that a Swordmaster from the Fighters' Guild has been assigned to her as well," the leader reported. "This Swordmaster has a dark elf in his employ."

"That may make things difficult, but not impossible," the mystery man replied. "With her guard dealt with by the orcs we expected some form of additional protection to be provided."

"We are set to take her on the third day out from Aithen," he explained. "There will be no inns in that area, so they will have to camp off the highway. We'll attack at dawn, secure her and be on our way."

"When she leaves Aithen, I want you around her somehow," he ordered, handing over a small pouch. "It will be easier if they travel with a caravan or train. Make sure you are a part of any caravan."

"Yes, milord," the leader smiled, taking the pouch. "Very good, milord."

"Now, get back up there and keep watch," the mystery man ordered, getting up.

The men nodded, finished their drinks and left. The mystery man left as well. Aaron waited a few moments and then followed the mystery man out of the taproom. The last thing Aaron felt was an explosion of pain and then darkness.

When Aaron groggily came to, he was lying on the ground. His hands and arms were tied behind his back, and his feet were tied together as well. More importantly, both swords were missing! He kept his eyes shut, trying to discern where he was.

"Who are you, and why were you eavesdropping on my conversation?" he heard.

Trying to act still out of it, which was not too far from the truth, he began pulling Eldritch to him, which helped to clear his head faster.

"Black Rose, Red Rose, where are you?" he mentally called out.

"We are close by, My Lord," both swords acknowledged him. "We are unharmed."

"You are unharmed?" Aaron replied disgustedly. "What about me, I thought you would not allow harm to come to me, either by action or inaction?"

"You were not harmed, My Lord," Black Rose replied. "It is a small lump on your head; we thought it was more important for you to know who this human was."

"Next time, bring me into the discussion," Aaron replied, and then groaned aloud when he was kicked.

"I asked who you were." Aaron heard again. "I will not ask again."

"Just a guardsman, enjoying a day off," Aaron replied slowly. "What happened to me? Why am I tied up?"

Fortunately, Aaron had had the presence of mind to remove his SwordMaster's cord before he went to visit the Merchant's Guild. He was required by guild law to display it at all times but he did not want to intimidate anyone when he went to visit Master Gerard.

"Very nice swords for a guardsman," Aaron heard behind him. "What about the other weapons you have? Seems more fitting for a thief, or assassin, then a guardsman?"

"Sometimes a guardsman has to be all of those things," Aaron replied, fully awake and head injury healed. "The swords have been handed down through my family. Will you untie me now?"

"Who do you work for?" Aaron heard.

"A minor merchant house," Aaron replied. "House de Ponce."

"A pity that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time," Aaron heard, closer now.

Aaron let the Eldritch course through his body, strengthening muscles and prepared himself for his next course of action. Concentrating on his bonds and using his magic, he dissolved them into nothingness and leaped up and away from the voice.

"Black Rose, Red Rose, to me," Aaron projected mentally, holding out his hands, and turning toward his captor.

The swords appeared in his hands, bluish flames flickering up and down their blades. Aaron's captor drew his sword and attacked. Aaron blocked the attack with Red Rose, and cut him on the cheek with Black Rose.

"You should have killed me when you had the chance," Aaron remarked, sweeping Black Rose down across his attacker's right kneecap, splitting it open.

The man fell to the opposite knee, keeping his sword pointed at Aaron. Aaron knocked the sword aside with Red Rose and cut him across his right bicep severing the muscle. The man dropped his sword and grabbed his arm, trying to stop the flow of blood.

"Now, none of your wounds are life threatening, yet," Aaron brought Black Rose's tip in front of the man's face. "Tell me why you are having the Malkurian Duchess followed, and who you are working for?"

The man looked straight at Aaron, "I have nothing to say."

"Pity," Aaron replied, plunging Black Rose into his heart. Black Rose drank deep and consumed his soul, passing on some of the power to Aaron. Aaron pushed the body over with his foot and searched it.

Aaron's search of the man turned up a thief's token, though not from Aithen, some coin, mostly silver, and a map. The map was the most interesting discovery. It showed the caravan route from Aithen to Malkur, as well as several proposed ambush sites, based on travel times. More importantly, it showed the escape route from the ambush site to a small city-state northwest of Malkur, called Creton.

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