The Shadow of the Rose
Chapter 12

Copyright© 2012 by R22CoolGuy

Rac-Nur had the ladies dressed and ready before dawn. There was a knock on the door and Raymond led them to the barn where a large freight wagon was hitched to a team of oxen. The floor boards were set aside, and Brian helped the ladies climb up in the space that would be hidden beneath the bed and get in position. Rac-Nur thanked Raymond for his many courtesies and services and reminded him of the message for his liege. Climbing up into the secret compartment, Rac-Nur got in place and Raymond and Brian set the floor boards into place and loaded the empty mead barrels in the bed. Raymond grasped his son's forearm, wished him safe travels and went and opened the stable doors. Brian jumped up into the driver's seat and shook the reins, starting the oxen forward. After the wagon cleared the stable, Raymond closed the doors and watched his son drive off.

Rac-Nur felt the wagon lurch forward, signaling the start of their journey. It was several moments later when the wagon came to a halt and they could hear muffled talking. They felt the wagon sag a little, as if someone had climbed into the bed. There was a lot of scraping going on above them and Rac-Nur prepared himself if they were discovered. Moments passed before the wagon lurched forward again about a half an hour later the wagon came to a halt again, the wagon sagged and scraping could be heard again. One of the floor boards was pulled away and they looked up to see Brian with a big smile on his face. Reaching his hand down he helped Rac-Nur out first and then the two helped each lady out in turn. The ladies sat up in the seat while Brian and Rac-Nur moved the floor boards back in place and re-secured the load.

Captain Snyder had his company turned out in front of the guildhall. First platoon was packed and ready to move out. Second platoon would follow in a week. Several wagons were hitched and ready to move as well.

"Lieutenant Murray, second platoon is yours," Captain Snyder commanded. "I expect you to leave as soon as possible.

"Yes sir!" Lieutenant Murray raised his sword in salute. "Second platoon, present arms!"

"Lieutenant Williams, make first platoon ready to move out," the captain commanded his second for this deployment.

"First platoon, prepare to mount!" Lieutenant Williams commanded.

"First platoon, mount!" the lieutenant brought his sword up in an answering salute and ordered the platoon forward.

The platoon and support wagons did not get far before Captain Snyder called a halt, waiting in an outbound line at the main gates. It seemed that the city guard was inspecting outbound traffic. Finally moving up to the gates, the captain conferred with the city guard and was waved on through. Calling for the platoon to head out, they turned east toward Realto. Ahead to the right the captain saw a freight wagon pulled over off the side of the highway.

Brian had just finished tying down the barrels when Rac-Nur looked up and saw a mounted column of guardsmen traveling down the highway, coming straight at them. Rac-Nur tested his swords in their scabbards and then noticed the flag flying from the guidon bearer's pole. It was a silver bounding hart on a sky blue field! Rac-Nur quickly jumped over the barrels to where Lady Anastasia was sitting at the front of the wagon and quickly spoke in her ear. She turned and looked at him intently, to which he nodded emphatically and smiled. Lady Anastasia quickly explained to Lady Laura and then climbed down from the wagon and walked up to the side of the highway. Lady Laura quickly jumped down and caught up with her, looked at the lead guardsman, and spoke softly to her. Lady Anastasia nodded and waited for the lead horse to come closer.

Captain Snyder saw the freight wagon on the side of the highway, and watched the two women get down and walk up to the edge of the highway.

"Good morning Captain," Anastasia called out. "I am glad we were able to catch you before you traveled too far down the highway."

"Good morning miss," Captain Snyder touched his forehead, and called a halt to the troop. "Why were you trying to catch us?"

"I am Anastasia Whiterune, Marquise de la Rose," Anastasia replied. "We are traveling east to Realto, and I will require an escort. Your coming through here was fortuitous."

"Lord Aaron does in fact have a ward, but her name is Anastasia de Ponce," the captain countered. "Forgive my asking, but since you are currently traveling in a freight wagon, do you have any proof of your claim?"

"I chose to take the name of my guardian," Anastasia explained, handing him the coin Aaron gave her. "There is my proof."

The captain took the coin and studied it and turned it over studying the other side. He returned the coin to her and smiled.

"My apologizes, my lady," Captain Snyder saluted. "We would be honored to provide you escort to Realto or wherever you wish to go. I did promise your guardian that I would arrive at the castle as soon as possible, though."

"My dear Captain, I have no intention of slowing you down," Lady Anastasia smiled. "I know how important your trip is to Lord Aaron. If you would provide accommodations for three, we can leave at once."

"Very good, my lady," Captain Snyder replied. "The troop is not in possession of a coach, would a wagon suffice?"

"Yes, Lady Laura and I can ride in a wagon," she replied. "My protector, Rac-Nur, will require a mount, do you have a spare?"

"Yes, my lady," Captain Snyder replied. "Sergeant Underwood, have a mount sent up for Lady Anastasia's protector, and make room for the ladies on the supply wagon. Let the men know that Lady Anastasia and guest will be traveling with us to Realto."

The sergeant acknowledged the commands of the captain and then had a wagon and a mount brought to the front of the column. The ladies bid Brian goodbye and thanked him for getting them this far. Brian waved goodbye and moved his team forward. He still had a pickup to make and he needed to get back to Aithen before dark. The sergeant helped the ladies up into the wagon and after providing a mount for Rac-Nur, the troop was again ready to travel. The captain gave the commands, and the troop moved out.

Tanith was concerned. Aaron was not getting any better. He also was not getting any worse, but that was of little consolation. She needed to do something that would spark his spirit to return. She had an idea, but it was risky, but as she had no other options: no risk, no reward.

The original reason she chose that particular mountain for her lair was because of the strong presence of Eldritch emanating from the area. Her lair entrance was an old lava tube that she had expanded and blocked at the bottom chamber. During the excavation she found another side lava tube leading deeper into the mountain and ending in another chamber, but much larger, with a bubbling pool dominating the center.

Not a pool of lava, but of pure energy, of pure Eldritch. Not that Eldritch existed in a liquid state, per se, but the energy was so intense, so concentrated in the pool that it coalesced into a visible fluid state. The pool of Eldritch was silver in color with the consistency of quicksilver. The bubbles were diffuse Eldritch rising to the surface from deep within the subterranean rock.

Eldritch normally existed in a diffused state, its energy released from every animal, plant, and mineral, like a low level fog, everywhere but not concentrated anywhere. Those that could sense it and access it, pulled the diffuse energy into their beings and concentrated it into a more usable state, focusing it, if you will. It was an invisible force permeating everything and connecting everything.

The chamber was huge and the pool was large enough for Tanith to use while in her true shape. Not that she would ever enter the pool, no, that would be akin to suicide. She was a thing of Eldritch, so submerging herself in the pool would unmake her. No, her plan was to submerge Aaron within the pool and hope that the Eldritch healed him and returned him to her. She moved him from the bed he was in, down the lava tube and into the chamber. After scribing him with runes of power she gently slid him into the pool and stepped back, from the pool's edge. At first he just floated on his back out to the middle of the pool. Eventually he lost the bubble, tipped sideways and slipped under the surface, disappearing completely. Tanith waited several moments with bated breath for something to happen, either positive or negative.

The surface of the pool began to boil and froth and finally erupted in a spray of silvery light, as Aaron's body rose vertically into the air. Aaron was clearly still unconscious, head slumped forward, arms and legs dangling, body slowly turning around. Flares of Eldritch erupted from the pool and streaked upward striking Aaron's body in the chest, causing his arms and legs to flail with every strike. With every strike of Eldritch, Aaron's body image began to flash with the image of the scaled hulks from the 'Hall of Kings'. Except this image bore wings, which her mortal enemies did not. It was as if his essence was changing, changing from humanoid to something else entirely. Tanith's gasp of surprise reverberated off the walls of the cavern. The obvious transformation went on for several moments until the eruptions finally subsided and Aaron's body slowly descended into the pool submerging completely. A few moments later, his body surfaced and slowly moved toward the pool's edge and Tanith, where it beached on the shore. Aaron's chest gave a big heaving sigh and his eyes fluttered open.

"What happen? Where am I?" he croaked a whisper.

"Shh, rest, you are safe," Tanith stroked his head. "Just rest."

Aaron nodded and closed his eyes slipping into a restful sleep. Tanith smiled and moved him back to her lair and put him back in bed. She could feel that he was sleeping and she could feel his strength returning through the bond. He would recover, of that she was certain.

The status of SwordMaster was unique among the masters of the various guilds. No other master carried the innate respect of the populace like a SwordMaster. He may be called upon to adjudicate disagreements or displays of swordsmanship, and as such his word was his bond and above reproach. Arbiter of duels, sole judge of skills, the SwordMaster was welcome in any town, regardless of guild affiliation.

Master Landon, Micah's mentor and teacher entered Realto and passed through the inner city gates with no troubles. The gates were doubly manned and everyone was checked, both coming and going. Master Landon was stopped, but after the guard saw the black cord, he passed Master Landon through with no further inquires. Master Landon noted that the guards were not from Realto, but Aithen, and they bore the livery of House Beadle. He observed their movements, procedures, and protocol, and then headed toward the guildhalls and his destination: the Sorcerers' Guild. He spent an hour or so in quiet discussion with Master Ragnar, head of the guild. What he learned encouraged him. Elsewhere, throughout the city, various emissaries of Micah's visited the different guilds and residents loyal to the Blackmoons, and were encouraged as well. It seemed as if the lies spread about Micah's supposed involvement in the death of Duke Thandar had fallen on deaf ears. Micah had more support than first thought, so the planning of the battle to retake Realto began in earnest.

The Duchy of Creton was the northern most city-state of the Central Plains and was the trade gateway to the Northern Reaches. Built into the side of a natural cliff in the foothills of the Dragon Back Mountains, it was initially used as a fortified frontier outpost, holding back the marauding hordes of the Northern Reaches. After the Creton Peace Accords it became a trading outpost for the nomadic tribes of the northern Central Plains and a stopping point for trade caravans on their way through the mountain passes and into the Northern Reaches.

The city itself was enclosed within two walls, curved outward from the cliff and ending at the front of the city in a pair of gates. The ducal palace was the only portion left still built into the cliff, while the rest of the city sprawled out on the floor of the plains, behind the stone walls. It was home to a diverse population of humans, dwarves, gnomes, and even a small community of goblins. Many of the large merchant houses maintained holdings within the city, and some even had offices. The major guilds also called Creton home, and it was also the headquarters of the sub-sect of the Assassins' Guild known as the 'Black Hand'.

The Black Hand held a small office within the city gates, the actual location of the guild was unknown, as were their members and total numbers; even how they were recruited, and their training practices were all closely guarded secrets. They were a specialized cadre of assassins that worked in small squad style groups, as opposed to the more general lone wolf assassin. Their fee was non-negotiable and set at 100 gold pieces per individual contract, or 1000 gold pieces per squad for a larger operation.

The current Duke of Creton was Gunter Farhewer II, nephew of the old duke who had passed away the previous winter. He was his uncle's sister-son and at 20 summers was unmarried and although good looking, had few prospects. He had a plan in motion that would soon rectify that. However, his point man had not checked in recently, and was missing. The Duke was worried enough to send his most trusted agent, Master Ruk Telemar, 3rd level Master Thief.

Master Telemar made use of his liege's goblin wizard to teleport him to the camp site of the men responsible for delivering his liege's soon to be bride, only to find the camp empty. He began his search there.

Lord Devlin was again making preparations to call forth additional aid. Having lost three knights, one of whom had been the captain of his guard, he needed to re-fill his ranks. Tomorrow would be another full moon, the perfect night for necromancy. This time, however, he would have his knights to aid him. This time he would add one more to the nine, a champion; Lord Devlin chuckled at the thought.

At sunset the following evening the procession entered the chapel and took up positions around the altar. A young virginal girl was bound naked and spread-eagled on the altar in preparation. Glassy eyes revealed the drug induced stupor preventing her from fully realizing her fate. The six remaining knights flanked the altar on both sides while Lord Devlin took up his position at the head of the altar looking down at the young girl. To the left of the altar, burnt into the floor, was a pentagram with lit human tallow candles at the points, and a smaller lit brazier in the top triangle.

Lord Devlin held his hands out and up in silent supplication, before starting a magical chant, head hung low and eyes closed. The chanting reached a crescendo when Lord Devlin lifted his head and opened his eyes. Eyes rolled back in his head, and Eldritch crackling from his finger tips, he reached over and placed his left hand above the girl's face and flexed his fingers. Her body arched up and, despite her drugged state, she began screaming as tendrils of white energy began flowing from her face into Lord Devlin's palm. A small white ball of energy, the size and shape of a ripe date, flowed from her head, which Lord Devlin caught gently out of the air. The young girl slumped back onto the altar as Lord Devlin extended his right hand, fingers together, and gently slid the hand into her chest and removed her beating heart.

Stepping down from the altar he used the still beating heart to draw a line of blood, connecting the five points and completing the pentagram. Lord Devlin set the heart on the brazier which caused the room to be filled with a sickly sweet, noxious, smoke as a form began to manifest itself in the center of the pentagram.

"What do you offer?" the form asked, becoming a tall well groomed man, impeccably dressed, the only indication that he was anything other then what he seemed his eyes - burning red eyes.

"A pure soul, Lord Belial," Lord Devlin held the tiny white ball of energy out at arm's length.

"Acceptable. What do you require?" Lord Belial, Crown Prince of Hell, asked.

"A mighty Prince of Thangdaemon was slain not far from here," Lord Devlin explained. "I request the location of the body."

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