The Balance of the Rose - Cover

The Balance of the Rose

Copyright© 2014 by R22CoolGuy


"That brings us current to about a week ago," Karith stated, finishing her story. "The rest you pretty much know, since you found the portrait."

"We sent Alfred east to the coast with sufficient funds to book passage back to Britain," Mann added. "Marianne decided to stay here and attend the university. You will be able to meet her, since we are supposed to have lunch here."

"Your story is incredible, Karith," Reg replied. "There are a few things that you did not mention."

"What are those?" Karith asked.

"Well, two come quickly to mind," Reg replied. "Who gave the bar of archanite to Prince Tarn and who commanded the werewolves?"

"Good questions, the both of them," Mann interjected. "Neither do we have answers for, although, in the grand scheme of things it matters little."

"Matters little? I should think you would want to tie up those loose ends," Reg stated.

"No, I am only interested in the scale's ability to correct itself," Mann stated, shaking his head. "All else is superfluous."

"But you still have the bar?" Reg asked. "May I see it?"

Mann removed the lacquered box from within his cloak and slid it across the table to Reg, who picked it up and opened it. He reverently removed the bar from within and turned it over, inspecting it. He placed it back into the box and then slid it back across the table.

"The metal shimmers under the surface," Reg stated. "It moves like it is fluid. I always wondered what it looked like. This is one of Dao's then?"

"I would rather you did not speak the Creator's name," Mann stated and nodded, while stowing the box away within his cloak. "Caledor states that the bar was refined and fashioned by him."

"Mann, Marianne is late," Karith stated interrupting them and looking around for their traveling companion. "You do not suppose anything has happened to her, do you?"

"Hmmm, let me check," Mann replied and closed his eyes in concentration.

He let his consciousness soar and expand outward coupled with Eldritch. Except for Karith's, Marianne's essence was the most familiar and it took him little time to locate her. And what he saw as he expanded his awareness around her made him very unhappy. He tried to bring her forth from her prison and was unable to so. She must be warded somehow.

"She is being held against her will," Mann stated, opening his eyes. "I cannot shift her here because of some type of warding. Reg, if you will excuse us, Karith and I must be off."

The café suddenly got quiet as everyone in the shop, other than the table where the trio were sitting, stopped talking and were frozen in place. Servers were frozen in mid-step and patrons looked like life-sized statues. The light dimmed in the café, even though it was the middle of the afternoon.

"My Lord!" Caledor exclaimed in alarm.

Mann jumped up, moving away from the table, and drew the Runesword which burst into golden flames, its runes ablaze in silver. Karith leaped to her feet, drawing power and backing away to give Mann more room, and looked around trying to assess the threat. Reg also stood and drew Timekeeper and tapped into the flow of Eldritch.

"Reg, call upon your sword's true name, Cauth!" Mann exclaimed. "It will protect you."

"Well, well, well! You have grown in power and knowledge, Herald," a voice declared as a shape began to materialize just in front of the trio.

"You will find, Creator, that I have learned a great many things," Mann replied menacingly, recognizing the voice of Dao. "The most important of those is the fact that I am no longer your pawn."

"Harpist, interesting to find you here," Dao addressed Reg after fully materializing in the café. "Perhaps it would be better if you were not, here, I mean. Timekeeper, take your wielder elsewhere."

"Timekeeper, I name thee Cauth!" Reg proclaimed, holding the sword high.

"MY LORD!" TimeKeeper replied bursting into blue flames, runes glowing silver. "Creator, My Lord wishes to stay."

"Dao, I believe I will hang around for a while," Reg replied.

"Creator, perhaps it is you that should depart," Mann stepped forward. "Before I forget myself and remove you myself."

"Now, there is no reason to be hostile," Dao replied. "I have come to take you to your next assignment."

"Caledor?" Mann asked.

"No, My Lord, I know of no need," Caledor replied. "The Creator attempts to affect The Balance, or use you for his own designs."

"I am not yours to order about, Creator," Mann replied. "I do not answer to you, any longer."

"One way or another, you will come with me," Dao stated, matter-of-factly. "It would be easier if you just concede that fact."

"I will concede nothing to you," Mann replied and stretched out his left hand. "You leave me with little choice; Meldriran, to me!"

"AT LAST!" Boomed a deep raspy voice.

A sword appeared in Mann's outstretched hand. It was a bastard sword, with downward curved quillions, hand-and-a-half grip, and a wheel pommel. A single rune was carved into the blade, the same rune carved into the bar of archanite. The hilt was unadorned, no gem shone in the wheel pommel. It was, in all appearances, a simple bastard sword, of no great value. Except this sword burned with a silver fire!

"You were saying?" Mann asked, smiling a feral grin.

"DeathBringer, what trickery is this?" Dao asked, taking a step back. "This is neither your quarrel nor your realm of concern."

"The Herald believes otherwise," DeathBringer replied with a laugh. "For why else could he summon me?"

"Creator, you have tried to interfere in the purview of The Balance's Herald," Caledor announced. "If you continue, I will be forced to have you weighed and measured."

"You do not have the authority to stand in judgment of me, Runesword," Dao replied haughtily.

"Perhaps, Creator, but perhaps not; it is certainly a grey area," Caledor stated. "My wielder, The Balance's Herald, holds Death's Instrument, who does have that authority, given to it by you. Should we test that?"

"Yes, let us test that," Mann added menacingly. "Perhaps we should test this at council? Caledor, announce a request for an audience and take us there."

"AS YOU COMMAND, MY LORD!" Caledor replied and the room shimmered and faded away.

Mann, Karith, and Reg reappeared on three audience platforms, ringed in wrought iron, high above any firm ground. The trio was surrounded by a ring of stone thrones carved into the very rock of a stone structure.

"TimeKeeper, what is this place?" Reg mentally asked his sword.

"The Council of Elders, My Lord," the Runesword replied. "Be wary, My Lord, very wary."

"Mann, is this the Council?" Karith asked slowly turning around in awe of the presences surrounding them.

She was interrupted before Mann could answer.

"Herald, why have you requested an audience?" A voice rang out. "And more importantly, why have you brought outsiders here?"

"Dao, the Creator, known to this assembly as Creation, tries to interfere in the designs of The Balance," Mann replied. "I was forced to request aid from Death's Instrument to prevent it. I demand the council censor Creation, or I will be forced to deal with it. The Hand of Death is more than happy to oblige me."

"Creation, what do you have to say in your defense?" The same voice asked.

"Perhaps we should deal with our brother in private?" A different voice asked. "The Herald has brought it to our attention. Further discussion does not require his attendance."

"Hmm, yes that might be better," the first voice replied.

"Herald, you never answered for bringing outsiders here," a third voice stated.

"I really had no intention of answering the question," Mann replied and shrugged. "It is not germane to why I came, but all right, I will answer you. The Harpist of Time you probably already know but standing next to me is my bond-mate and she will be accompanying me wherever I go. Is that sufficient to dampen your inquisitiveness?"

"Yes, it will suffice," the third voice stated.

"Herald, we thank you for your information. Rest assured we will deal with the problem and it should not be an issue any more." A fourth and different voice stated. "You may leave."

"As you wish," Mann replied. "Caledor, return us to whence we came.

They felt the shift back to the physical plane and found themselves back in the café. Time was still frozen and Karith looked around at the other patrons, who were as still as statues.

"DeathBringer, thank you for answering my call," Mann said and sheathed Caledor. "I release you to your stone."

"The pleasure was mine, Herald," DeathBringer replied with a chuckle that froze the blood in Reg's veins. "Perhaps next time we could actually do something?"

"Will there be a next time?" Mann asked.

"As long as I have no wielder I will always answer your call. As will all my brethren, for you know our true-names. Hail, and well met, Herald."

As the bastard sword faded from Mann's grasp, he turned to Karith and kissed her. She smiled after breaking her kiss and cocked her head to the side. Mann followed her movement and looked around the room and frowned.

"Reg?" Mann asked, sweeping his hand around the room.

"TimeKeeper, if you would please?" Reg asked.

"As you command, My Lord," the sword replied and the lights came up and time started again.

"Mann, where were we and who were those beings?" Reg asked. "TimeKeeper called them the Council of Elders?"

"To the where, honestly I do not know," Mann replied. "TimeKeeper was correct, they are the Council of Elders. Karith explained it correctly in her story; they are Goyles and the abstract concepts of the universe. Dao is the manifestation of Creation and has in this instance overstepped his bounds. We should have no more issues where he is concerned."

"So we have similar responsibilities?" Reg asked.

"Correct; where you correct anomalies in the flow of Time, I correct instances where The Balance of the Universe has been adversely affected to the point that it cannot compensate by itself."

"Beloved, I hate to interrupt, but Marianne is still in danger," Karith stated, cutting into the conversation.

"Reg, Karith is correct, we need to go," Mann stated.

"Mann, I have nowhere to be, why do I not accompany the both of you?" Reg asked.

"I do not mind and a second sword would be helpful," Karith interjected. "I feel naked without mine, but we do not have the time to retrieve it."

"Time? Karith?" Reg chuckled. "We have all the Time we need. I know where your sword is as well as your platinum mailed bustier. Would you have me retrieve them for you?"

"Let us rescue Marianne first," Mann interjected. "Karith, just create a sword out of Eldritch. I have created a shield that way."

"Please, show me," Karith replied.

"Yes, I would like to see that as well," Reg replied.

Mann showed them how to create a sword or shield by manipulating Eldritch. Reg was unable to duplicate Mann's instructions even after going over it several times. Karith was able to produce a silver sword that held its form and was strong and sharp. Mann declared her exercise a success and with the instructions out of the way it was time to rescue Marianne.

Marianne had just finished registering at the university and was hurrying to keep her lunch engagement with Mann and Karith. Unbeknownst to her, two men had been following her for the better part of two days and were closing in. They sprang their abduction trap at an alleyway corner, stepping to either side and injecting her with a sleeping potion. Marianne slumped forward while the two men each grabbed an arm and steered her into the alleyway and away from the crowded streets. The alleyway led to another back street and a waiting horse-drawn cab. The two men stuffed her into the cab's luggage compartment and jumped into the carriage. The driver shook the reins and the carriage started forward and made its way through the streets and out of the city, toward an old countryside estate.

Marianne slowly awoke feeling the groggy aftereffects of the injection. Her mouth felt like cotton, there was a buzzing noise running through her brain, and she could not move her arms or legs for some strange reason.

"Ahh, I see you are awake, my dear," a voice stated, the words floating around in her brain. "Do not struggle, you had to be restrained for your own good."

"Where am I?" Marianne asked, eyes slowly focused. "Who are you?

She was strapped to a chair in the middle of a bare room. The room itself was small, with no outside windows, just a solid wood door with a small barred opening, stone walls and floor, only two candle sconces for light. It was for all intents and purposes a prison cell. Standing before her was an impeccably dressed man with pasty white skin and brown hair and eyes.

"I will answer the 'Who?' first," the man replied and bowed. "Don Angelo Giovanni at your service. You are here at my country estate, outside of the city."

"Why have you taken me?" Marianne asked, struggling against her bonds.

"Ahh, now we are at the crux of the situation," Don Giovanni replied. "To get someone's attention. Now, be a nice girl and wait here."

Don Giovanni turned and left the room over Marianne's protests. She struggled against her bonds again and finally dropped her head in tears.

"Karith, I want you and Reg to appear outside of the estate where Marianne is being held," Mann explained and sent her a mental picture of the area just outside of the estate. "Here is a picture of the surroundings."

"And where will you be?" Karith asked.

"I intend to rescue her by way of the Shadow Realm," Mann replied. "I can see if there are any obvious traps, as well as determine the type of warding, while you two provide a distraction."

"While I do not like the idea of being split up, I can find no fault in your plan," Karith conceded. "What exactly do you want us to do?"

Mann explained that all they had to do was keep the focus on them and allow him to sneak in, assess any threats, and get Marianne out of there. He planned to meet up with them after that, then deal with whoever it was that orchestrated the abduction.

"Are you both ready?" Mann asked.

They both nodded that they were, and after Mann reminded them to be careful, Karith shifted them to the area that Mann had picked out. Mann drew up the hood of his cloak, stepped into the shadows, and disappeared.

Once Mann shifted to the Shadow Realm he took a second to orient himself before shifting to the room where Marianne was being held. He reappeared in the room and looked around for signs of traps or anything else out of the ordinary. After satisfying himself that everything was as it should be he looked for a place to side-shift back to the physical plane and finally decided to just do so within the room. The candles in the wall sconces gave off just enough light to cast sufficient shadows within the cell and Mann used one of those shadows to side-shift back to the Physical Plane.

Marianne was silently weeping when a noise caused her to stop and look up in time to see Mann literally step out of the shadows, holding his finger to his lips! Her small gasp was cut short by Mann's gesture to be quiet.

"Shhh, are you all right?" Mann whispered.

Marianne nodded in the affirmative as she watched Mann pull his dagger and slowly approach the chair. He abruptly stopped short of the chair, cocking his head questioningly. Mann slowly sheathed the dagger and stretched out his hand toward the chair, fingers splayed. He closed his eyes and concentrated, reaching out with his awareness. The chair was booby trapped and warded! He backed away from the chair and stepped back into the shadows pulling up his hood and shifting back to the Shadow Realm.

Mann motioned the denizens to stay back and then moved over to where Marianne was sitting and grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her and the chair into the Shadow Realm.

"Where are we?" Marianne whimpered, looking around in fear.

"Shh, it is all right, nothing is going to hurt you," Mann said, reassuring her. "You are safe with me. We are in the Shadow Realm, now let me get you undone."

Mann drew Caledor, since the dagger was just a shadow of itself but the Runesword crossed all planes of existence. Although the dagger was a runedagger it held no sentience and therefore was just an object that cast a shadow, a shadow of itself while in this realm. He carefully cut her bonds and had her stand up from the chair. Once she stepped away the chair vanished, leaving only its shadow.

"Where did it go?" Marianne asked.

"Back to the Physical Plane," Mann replied. "We are going to follow it; well, sort of."

Mann searched for and found Karith and expanded his awareness to take in her surroundings. After he had a good mental picture he transferred the information to his sword.

"Caledor, if you please?" He asked his sword.

Caledor opened a gate and the two stepped through it and it closed behind them.

Karith and Reg appeared on the road leading to the country estate where Marianne was being held. They expected some type of resistance or even a sentry's alarm; they received neither. The mansion and grounds were behind a five foot stone wall and accessed by way of a pair of elaborately fashioned wrought-iron gates, which stood invitingly open. They cautiously entered the estate's grounds through the open gates and started up the long driveway toward the mansion. Reg paused and turned around to the noise of the gates swinging inward and closing with a thud. Karith shook her head and turned back toward their destination just in time to see the approaching werewolves!

Don Giovanni had alerted his interests in the various cities that he did business in to be on the lookout for a white-haired stranger and any associates. It was a several days later when word came in that Signore Mann and two lovely females had been spotted in Lyon, France.

He immediately put a plan into motion to abduct one or the other of the two women accompanying Signore Mann. He sent word to have them followed but to stay clear of Signore Mann, since he had shown an unique talent to identify a tail.

Don Giovanni immediately relocated his base of operations to a country estate he owned on the outskirts of Lyon and waited. He had not been waiting long when word reached him that one of the women had been seen alone. He dispatched two of his best operatives to tail and grab her if the opportunity presented itself. After she was abducted he had her brought to the estate and placed in one of the unused prisoner cells in the cellar. He personally designed a magical trap in the room in case Signore Mann was resourceful enough to gain access for the cell. The Don also instructed his roving patrols to be on the lookout for anything unusual and to kill first and ask questions later. He felt, all in all, that he was adequately prepared for when Signore Mann realized that one of the women was missing. The Don just had to sit back and wait for him to show up.

Reg and Karith moved away from each other forcing the approaching werewolves to also split their forces up. Reg already had TimeKeeper drawn and the sword had blue flames flickering up and down its blade, while Karith drew power and created a silver rapier from Eldritch. Four wolves were approaching fast, running on four legs, eating the distance in great bites.

Reg sidestepped the rushing wolves and swung TimeKeeper down, severing the head of the first wolf. The head flew end over end while the body crashed down into the ground. Reg pivoted right just as the second wolf crashed into him, bowling him over, causing him to lose his grip on the Runesword which went flying into the air and landed point first in the ground. Reg and beast went crashing to the ground rolling around trying to get the best of the other. The wolf came out on top, pinning Reg with its front paws and going for the jugular. Reg tried to reach his dagger, but his arms were pinned, his fingers falling short of its hilt. He only had moments left before the wolf ripped out his throat. He did the only thing he could; relaxing, he drew in Eldritch and released it through his hands as bolts of lightning. The lightning bolts hit the wolf in the chest on both sides. The beast yelped and jumped away from the attack, writhing on the ground in immense pain. Reg kept the attack up as he rolled over toward the wolf. Smoke began to rise off the beast as the sickening smell of burning flesh permeated the air.

The wolves were on Karith quickly, leaving her little time to worry about her partner. The first wolf got several silver balls of Eldritch in the middle of its snout, causing it to drop to the ground and skid past her. The second wolf shifted from a four legged lope to an upright gait and swung one of its massive paws at Karith's head. She brought her enchanted sword up and blocked the swing. The wolf pressed its advantage, dancing around Karith's counter-attack and forcing her to retreat. She and the werewolf battled back and forth, the wolf continuing to press her back. As she stepped back, she turned her ankle on a mole mound and went down. Only her training with Mann saved her life; as she fell backward she pushed off with her good leg and tucked her legs, rolling over and coming upright with her sword at the ready. The wolf snarled and leaped forward as she fell, but was completely unprepared for her move and ended up skewered through the chest on Karith's outstretched sword tip. Standing gingerly she pulled the sword loose and tested her ankle as she searched for further threats.

"Are you all right?" Reg asked as he closed the distance to her side.

"I think I sprained my ankle," Karith replied, kneeling to check the damage. "Yes, it is sprained."

"Can you heal it, or would you like TimeKeeper to?" Reg asked as he kneeled next to her.

"I can take care of it but I thank you for your offer," Karith replied and wrapped her hands around the ankle.

Reg could see a silvery light leaking out around her fingers as Karith used Eldritch to heal the damage. After she was finished she stood up and tested the ankle by bouncing on it. Satisfied that it was healed, she smiled at Reg and started forward toward the Mansion. Reg fell in beside her.

"Do you not think it strange to see werewolves in the middle of the afternoon?" Reg asked.

"Very," Karith replied. "Serious magic is at work here. I expect we will find even stranger things."

"Stranger than a beautiful woman who turns into a dragon or a mortal that travels the universe in the company of a sentient sword?" Reg asked in jest.

"I am a Wyrm and thank you for the complement," Karith replied and laughed. "Probably not stranger than that, although I expect we will find Mann inside somewhere."

"Mann is definitely stranger than that," Reg replied.

"Stranger than what?" Mann asked, appearing beside Karith with Marianne right behind.

"Than a beautiful woman turning into a Wyrm or a mortal running around the universe with a Runesword," Karith deadpanned.

"What? I am as normal as they come," Mann replied, joining in the jest.

"Sure, every normal person travels the Realm of Shadows," Marianne interjected, joining in as well.

"She has you there," Reg replied. "I am called Reg, an old friend of Mann and Karith."

After making introductions all around Mann brought the other two up to speed concerning Marianne's release. Karith added her and Reg's encounter with werewolves. Marianne informed them who was behind the plot to abduct her. Mann cursed aloud and swore he would never leave an adversary alive again. Karith commented that Mann had made that oath before. He responded that it would be the last time those words would cross his lips.

"Enough of this!" Mann exclaimed. "To the matter at hand!"

Don Giovanni heard the commotion on the front lawn and ordered his guards to investigate. After giving the order, he hurried toward the cell to ensure his prisoner was safe and sound. Upon arriving at the door he looked in through the window and found the cell empty! He flung open the door and searched the empty cell and found nothing, except an empty chair. Don Giovanni cursed and disappeared in a cloud of black smoke!

Mann's party stopped at the circle drive in front of the main house. He remarked that he would just as soon bring the entire house down than go room by room. Karith reminded him that he would never know if Don Giovanni was dealt with unless he did so personally. Mann agreed and they approached the front doors, which opened inward at their approach.

"Well, that looks inviting," Reg remarked, approaching the open doors.

"Marianne, when we go inside stay in the middle behind me and between Reg and Karith," Mann explained as Karith took her usual spot to his left and Reg took up position on his right.

The trio made an arc with Marianne directly across from the flankers and behind the lead. Mann slowly entered through the doors and approached the grand foyer looking for threats. Marianne jumped to the noise of the front doors slamming shut. Mann turned his head and looked at the door with a shake of his head. He turned back around just as all the wall sconces flared to life.

"Do these theatrics normally impress the locals?" Mann called out to the room. "Because where I come from they are nothing more than mere parlor tricks."

Mann pushed his hand back, releasing a concussion of Eldritch which caused the doors to blow outward off their hinges and fly through the air before landing out in the lawn. He then reached out with his hand and the flames turned golden and burned brighter.

They were standing at the bottom of a large stairway leading up. There were two sets of doors to the left and right on the main level that burst open into the foyer. The Don's henchmen flowed out of the doors straight at the party. Karith and Reg engaged the assailants on either side leaving Mann free to deal with whatever came at them from straight ahead. An entity began to materialize and form right in front of Mann, who stepped back and drew more power.

The shadowy entity flowed back and forth as it finished materializing in front of the chuckling Mann. It was a shadow wraith and it began to moan and writhe about in response to Mann's glowing ring. It backed away from the sunlight streaming in through the open doorway.

"Really? You send one of my subjects against me?" Mann called out. "By the Gods you are stupid! Return to your realm, servant."

The wraith moaned one last time before fading away. During the interplay with the wraith Reg and Karith each dealt with their respective assailants, making quick work of the henchmen.

Mann pointed up the stairs and the group slowly climbed toward the second level and a hallway going left and right. At the top of the stairs they turned left and advanced down the hallway, clearing each of the rooms until they reached the end of the hall. They backtracked to the opposite side and repeated the procedure there, clearing all of the upstairs' rooms.

Mann led the procession back down the stairs and started clearing the rooms, starting with the left side again. When all was said and done they had been in the house for well over an hour, and other than minions they had seen nothing of Don Giovanni. Toward the end of the downstairs search they came across a door the led down a set if stairs to a cellar or perhaps dungeon.

"It is always the dungeons is it not Mann?" Reg asked, shaking his head. "I hate dungeons."

"You do not hate dungeons," Mann replied. "You just hate the things that make their homes in dungeons."

"Well, yes, that too," Reg replied with a chuckle.

"Are we going down, or staying here and debating dungeon dwellers?" Karith asked, starting down the steps.

Karith reached the bottom of the steps and stepped into a large open cellar. On the left were several rows of wine racks and a couple of stacks of barrels of something else. On the right side were shelves and two sets of doors, one with a barred window. On the far side of the room were a set of double doors.

"Mann, look!" Marianne pointed toward the door with the barred window. "I think that was where I was being held."

"Quite possibly," Mann replied as he approached the closed door and looked in. "Yes, it is. Search around for any clues."

The room next to the cell was just a storeroom, holding a variety of staple items. Reg noted wagon tracks leading from some type of stand toward the double doors.

"Mann, what do you suppose this stand was for?" Reg asked, pointing toward it.

It was Marianne who had the answer, since she had seen plenty as a child due to her father's work as an undertaker. It was a bier or coffin stand. Mann inspected the tracks and determined that they had been made within the last few hours, possibly while they were searching the main part of the house.

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