The Balance of the Rose - Cover

The Balance of the Rose

Copyright© 2014 by R22CoolGuy

Chapter 5

The dawning of the new day found Mann still standing in the corner of the room and still in the Shadow Realm. The denizens, his subjects if you will, had left him alone but he felt their presence all around him. Having satisfied himself that whatever awoke him the previous evening did not pose a threat, or at least not yet, he pulled down the hood of his cloak and side shifted to the Material Plane.

Mann looked around the room and sat down on the edge of the bed and pondered his latest revelations. He was a thief and worse, an assassin! He was some lady's champion? Some guild council's troubleshooter, whatever that was? This Lord Azrael, whoever he was, wanted him to perform the same functions for him. And to top things off, he was Lord of the Realm of Shadows! Just who was he? What was he?

He also learned that he had possessed Runeswords before, two of them in fact. The mark on his left wrist began to make some sense, since the Runeswords shared the same names as the crossed roses.

"Caledor, what can you tell me about the two Runeswords I saw from my memory?"

"My Lord, they are from a previous life, before we were united," the sword replied vaguely. "That life has no meaning, now. We are sword and wielder, united in a way unheard of before."

"How so?"

"There are no other Runeswords that appear out of their wielder's wrist, My Lord. That, at least, I know for certain."

Mann decided to focus on the things he knew for certain. He had been called SwordMaster and WitchLord; one having to do with his extraordinary skill with a sword and the other with his extraordinary abilities with the power that flowed all around. The champion and troubleshooter he dismissed as having no importance in this new life but the thief and assassin were both something to reflect upon. He now had a name for two more skill sets he was likely to manifest at some point in the future but was not too terribly worried about them. The Lord of the Shadow Realm was just too fantastic to even try and describe, but he definitely would make use of that wonderment somehow. He planned to use and embrace any knowledge or skill that would aid in his search for Karith. Apparently he had lost her once, could still feel the pain of that loss, and had no intentions of repeating that. No, he would find her and woe on to whoever stood in his way or the Gods forbid, hurt her!

Mann set time aside for stretching, exercise, and sword practice to hone his skill for, he knew that soon he would need every bit of it. In the middle of practice he stopped when he noticed that he did not cast a shadow.

"What is this?" He thought as he looked for a shadow and found none. "Caledor, I now have no shadow. Is this a result of my recent discovery?"

"Perhaps, My Lord," the sword replied telepathically. "It makes the only plausible sense."

No shadow, now that was a new wrinkle, and one he felt he needed to protect. He put that aside for now and went back to practicing. After sword practice and forms, he spent several moments in a trance like state as he accessed the flow of Eldritch, as it was called, and strengthened his abilities there as well.

Having come to some important conclusions, he washed up and packed his possessions before leaving the room. After taking one last look to make sure that he had everything, he closed the door and went in search of breakfast. His fast broken, he bid the innkeeper good day, and left the inn for the stables and a saddled Thorn. Leaving the stable boy with two coppers, he mounted and was off, taking the road toward the Duchy of Milan.

Gregor and Henrik's search led them to the inn several hours after Mann had left. The innkeeper was cleaning the great room when the bell above the front door jingled announcing visitors.

"We are closed for cleaning," he called out. "Dinner is not for sometime still."

"We are not here for dinner," Gregor announced as Henrik stood watch at the door. "We are interested in any unusual occurrences from the previous evening."

"W-what d-do you mean, good sirs?" the innkeeper asked nervously, having come around the corner and stopping dead in his tracks at the sight before him.

Two strange men, dressed in black robes with red capes, facial features hidden within the folds of their hoods. Sorcerers! Moravian Sorcerers, in his inn! He could not believe his eyes. He always assumed that they were mere legend, told to scare children, or used to explain the bad things that happen in life. To find that they actually exist was enough to cause his heart to stop. If half of what was attributed to them was true, then he knew his life hung in the balance, precariously teetering on the brink of an abyss. The wrong word or phrase, hell, even the wrong movement, would mean his life.

"Did anything unusual happen here at the inn last night?" Gregor asked again, a little more forcibly.

"A terrible thunderstorm popped up last night out of nowhere, but other than that nothing unusual," he replied, mopping his sweating forehead.

"No unusual guests or strangers acting out of the ordinary?"

"No, wait there was a man that stopped a robbery, during dinner last night," the innkeeper replied, tapping his chin and trying to act nonchalant. "But there was not anything too unusual. He was good with a sword, though."

"What did he look like?"

"Normal height and all, well, except for his white hair. Yes, white hair, very strange now that I think about it, and his eyes, green they were, with specks of gold, not that I have seen much of that these days if you get my meaning?" The last little bit added hoping against hope that the sorcerers might just pay him for his information.

"Is he still here?" Gregor asked, while looking in Henrick's direction. He saw Henrick's head move infinitesimally side-to-side and smiled.

"No, he left this morning right after breakfast, heading toward Milan," the innkeeper pointed east. "He asked me about the roads and towns within the Duchy."

"Anything more?" Gregor asked.

"No, that is all."

"Very good then, here is your payment," Gregor announced, while reaching out and touching the innkeeper with a finger.

A spark of black energy leaped out and struck the innkeeper in the shoulder. The innkeeper gasped and clutched his chest, then fell to the ground dead. Gregor stepped over the body and Henrik fell in behind him as they left the inn.

"It seems as if the master was correct," Henrik stated as he swung into the saddle of his mount. "The two events are related. There is a strong residue of power in this area. What are the chances that there are two white haired men at the center of things?"

"Slim, at best," Gregor acknowledged while mounting his own ride, a jet black horse with red glowing eyes. "No, you are correct; we are searching for the same man. East we go, brother."

The two rode off toward the Duchy of Milan and their quarry.

Ciril and Damijan observed the village begin stirring at sunrise. The villagers continued with the cleanup that had been started the day before. All of the dead had been moved to a central area and people claimed family members for individual burial while the unclaimed or unrecognizable bodies were buried in a mass grave. Traveling unseen throughout the village, the two sorcerers determined that the man they were searching for was no longer there. They left the village heading in the direction of where their brethren's mission in the hopes of meeting up. If they failed in that, they decided they would return to the castle and inform their master of their discovery, or rather their lack of one.

Mann set a comfortable pace for Thorn. Yes, he was in a hurry, well, a relative hurry, but he did not want to set a pace that would cause his horse to go lame. He felt deep within himself that Karith was all right, perhaps not altogether safe, but at least safe enough for the time being. He knew that he had a long road to travel and he did not relish changing horses, so he let Thorn set their advance. He was surprised that the horse ate the miles and leagues in great chunks and never showed a sign of tiring.

He spent the greater part of the morning reflecting on the previous evening and the events that had transpired in his room. The words and their meaning continued to echo in his head, along with the inherent power within them, not just their general power, but the specific power each rune held and its usage. He had already used one to bind the sorcerer and realized he had had access to them in his previous life. He saw their runes in his mind's eye, and now knew the name for the rune carved in his right wrist: Meldriran, the rune of control, the rune of 'The Three', and yet he had no idea who 'The Three that are One' were. He just knew they existed.

He reached out with his senses and could feel the Eldritch flow all around him; in the flowers, the trees, and deep within the ground below him. He tried to remember more of the time before and except for fragments of the memories to which he already had access, his efforts were for naught. It seemed as if specific events now triggered similar events of then and he would just have to be patient and take them when they came.

Mann was content to let the horse have his head and he spent time watching and feeling their trail. It was several hours later that the hairs on the back of his neck stood up, causing a shiver down his spine. It felt as if someone had just walked across his grave. The feeling was so strong that he stopped Thorn and turned the horse back toward the way he had come. He studied the road for several moments but could not shake the feeling that he was being followed. There was nothing on the road for as far back as he could see ... But still, something had given him reason for pause. He continued to sit on his horse, pointed back the way he had come, and wait, but still nothing. He had decided to use Eldritch and feel back along the path and try and determine what had caused this uneasy feeling, when he felt a sharp blinding pain as his mind accessed a memory...

"Aaron, before dinner I want to practice something with you," Karith/Tanith explained. "I want you to passively reach out and feel me draw and use Eldritch."

Karith/Tanith then barely tapped into the flow of Eldritch and caused little sparks of power to jump from fingertip to fingertip. Mann/Aaron concentrated and reached out and felt the flow.

"No, not subtle enough," Karith/Tanith admonished him when she felt his surveillance. "I felt your touch, your use detecting mine. Try again."

Karith/Tanith dismissed the power and then tapped into the flow again creating a small ball of energy in her hand. Again Mann/Aaron concentrated, passively feeling for anomalies in the flow, and found where it diverted into her being as she accessed it. This time she could not feel Mann/Aaron and remarked as such. They practiced several more times until she was sure her mate had a more subtle control of his power. Finally satisfied with his progress, she called a halt to the exercise.

The pain did not last as long as before, perhaps because the memory was short and briefly flashed through his mind's eye. He did retain the knowledge that Karith was teaching him however and began to put it to use. He realized that it was really Tanith he was seeing in his dreams, but he thought of her as Karith now, and that was the name he associated her with. For his own self, he decided to relate to everything as Mann, it was less confusing that way. So, it was Mann and Karith now and forward into the future.

He felt his way through the wispy fog of flowing energy, looking for a change in the random, almost chaotic way that it flowed all around, when he found something. There! Several leagues back two concentrated diversions to the normal, random flow. The flow of Eldritch was being absorbed by two beings, neither of which felt familiar to him. It was as if they were casting out a net of their own, searching for something. The diversion must be their use of power, searching for him, he mused.

He had a tail and they were closing fast, looking around to judge his location, he concluded that they would catch up to him before he made the ducal seat in Milan. Weighing his options, he though it better to confront them here in the relative openness of the countryside. This stretch of the road was far from civilization and was fairly deserted; it would make a good place for a stand against whatever foul things tracked him. His trackers finally caught up to him just before evening time.

The two sorcerers fairly flew down the road on their hellish mounts, tracking their quarry into the lands of the Duchy of Milan. They pushed their mounts hard trying to reach their prey before he reached the relative protection of the capitol city. They were surprised when they saw a lone figure standing in the middle of the road, blocking their way. They slowed to a trot as they approached and stopped when they recognized a white haired man standing in the middle of the road, holding a sword down at his side.

Mann studied the riders as they approached and recognized the robed figures from the battle a few days ago. So, Moravian Sorcerers were on his trail. He reached out to make sure that Karith was safe, and then turned his attentions to the two riders that had stopped just short of his position.

"Why are you following me?" Mann called out in challenge.

They brought their hands together, palms outward, and attacked without provocation hoping to catch him before he could defend himself. In that regard they were unsuccessful as Mann immediately swung his sword up blocking the twin beams of blackness that lanced out from the sorcerers' out-turned hands, turning them aside. The runes on his sword began to glow silver as a golden flame began to dance up and down the blade.

Caledor was turning aside the attack so Mann took time to study the two sorcerers. They were accessing the flow of Eldritch differently than he did; not naturally, more like through an artificial enhancement of some kind. He reached out and searched the flowing energy looking for any anomalies. They had some kind of collection and focusing device that was absorbing the energy. He concentrated while closing his eyes and allowed the energy within him to back flow into the stream of Eldritch, directing it at the sorcerers. He blocked their device's ability to access the flow and fed them his power instead and at a rate that neither they nor their devices could hope to contain. He smiled as he opened his eyes observing his attack.

The twin black beams faded as a spot on their chests began to glow a golden hue, like a small golden sun trying to escape from their chests. Both sorcerers screamed at the same time grabbing their chests as they burst into golden flames. Mann watched, with a certain amount of detached curiosity, as their bodies and souls were consumed within the flames of his power. He continued to pour power into the sorcerers until there was nothing left of their bodies, or their horses either, for that matter. Mann slowly approached the spot and searched for any evidence of the two sorcerers and after finding none led Thorn away by the reins, searching for a place to spend the evening. When one was not quickly apparent, he mounted and rode on into the evening light, the sun beginning to set behind him.

The landscape began to change from rolling fields and orchard trees to more densely packed forest. As he traveled on, the darkness of the night was finally broken by the appearance of the moon, which had been playing hide and seek within the clouds. Its silvery light pierced the canopy of trees that overhung the road on each side. To his sensitive eyes, it was more than enough light to pick out the details of the road. Finally finding a break in the tree-line to the right, he stopped Thorn, dismounted, and turned off the road looking for a campsite. Leading Thorn by his reins, he crossed a small stream and came upon a trail leading farther away from the road. Following the trail, he saw a small stand of trees ahead of him arranged in a circular pattern within the chaos that was the forest. He felt a shiver as he stepped between the trees and into a clearing; a feeling of entering a holy place or a sanctuary settled upon him, easing the weariness of the day's travel and combat. As Thorn passed between the ring of trees the horse nickered and bobbed its head, almost as if he was agreeing with Mann's choice of a campsite.

Within the copse of trees was a clearing of dying grasses. There was enough room that he could camp away from the road and surrounding countryside while still have some warning if any of the creatures that hunted in the night happened to be around. As he entered the clearing, the moon disappeared behind the clouds and darkness once again settled over the area.

He finished unloading his horse and then set about preparing his bedroll. He had found a ring of rocks that indicated others had stopped here, but the damp and cold ground indicated that it had been some time. He decided that it would be in his best interest to take a final look around the border of the clearing while collecting deadfall for a fire. He planned to have one burn through the night to discourage any night raiders, the four legged kind as well as the two.

He came across a small stone altar at the far side of the copse. Behind the altar, planted within a ring of stones, was an ancient looking cream colored tree, bereft of its canopy. There was not a single leaf to be found on the tree, an unusual sight for midsummer. The tree did not look dead or diseased, just barren, as if it was waiting to bloom; waiting for what, Mann did not know.

The ring of stones around the tree was several courses high and each stone fit perfectly against the next. He could see no mortar joint, or even a gap between the stones. The altar was a rectangular slab of a creamy white stone, of unknown type, on two vertical plinths. As he approached, he felt a calmness settle over him like a well worn cloak.

He ran his hand over the stone and was amazed at the smooth feel of it. However it was made he could feel no tool marks or gouge marks on its surface. As his hand touched the stone he could feel power contained within its core, and it was warm, warmer than the temperature of the surrounding air or ground. The stone seemed to react to his touch, as he could feel power flowing into it and its internal temperature continue to rise. Here was peace and tranquility, and he knew that he would sleep undisturbed by outside influences.

Mann finished his search and foraging for wood, and prepared a small fire within the fire ring. He calmly called forth his power and fed it into the wood until a small fire ignited and quickly grew feeding on the dry wood. A small meal from his provisions washed down with some sweet mead sated his appetite. He lay down on his bedroll and closed his eyes.

It was several hours later when his eyes popped open. Something was different and his instincts had warned him, awakened him in the dead of night. It was quiet; no night sounds anywhere. He slowly sat up, and realized the clearing was bathed in a silvery glow as the argent moon shone down and the altar glowed with its own internal light. Small white flowers began to bud and open all along the branches of the tree. In mere moments the tree was covered in a crown of white flowers. A warm fragrance wafted outward from the tree and Mann felt at peace with the universe. He stood and searched the area for the cause of the manifestation.

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