“I’m not well versed in the ways of women, especially not noblewomen,” the smith, whose name is Ith and surname is Sol, says quietly. “And well, Sandrys is a foreigner.”
Rose nods thoughtfully. “She is.”
Truth be told, no one in the city knows exactly where Sandrys was born. Rose knows that she was raised here in the city. A few years back, she’d told Rose that her old home had been horrible.
Ith Sol stares at his hands and his work on the dented shield, then shrugs. “I don’t know what to tell you, Rose Knight. I truly wish I did, but I’ve never experienced something like that before. All I know is my love for the work I’m given and the love for my family. You love Sandrys the way that I love me husband. That’s the best I can compare it to. Do you think that she loves you the same?”
Rose pauses. Ith Sol’s gaze has turned from his work to her eyes. His honest, smooth face seems almost to accuse her, to dare her to say that she thinks otherwise. She has never seen a look like that on Ith, and for a moment she stands there with her mouth open. Then she closes it. She need say nothing. Her silence answers for her.
“Yet still you go back to her, thinking she does not care for you,” Ith says. “Perhaps our Lady Sandrys is not at fault.”
Perhaps it is you who are at fault. Perhaps you are just stupid.
The words ring louder unspoken than if the blacksmith had said them.
“I will return for my shield and armor at dusk,” Rose says faintly. “Thank you.” The words feel stiff and forced. Her movements are stiff and forced as she controls herself and makes herself leave Ith Sol’s workshop.
His voice comes from the shop as soon as she is beyond the doorway. She turns slightly.
“All things, like armor, come to an end. So too, with love.”
Rose’s hand clenches into a tight, helplessly furious fist, but she says nothing in response, neatly closing the shop door behind her. Unsteadily, trail weaving through the crowd, Rose moves until she reaches the outskirts of the city, just feet outside of the main gate. A tall tree grows here, and she settles under it, slumps against it.
There she buries her head in her hands, hiding her face.
A crackling rustling, close behind her, makes her look around. Her gaze searches, but finds nothing, and she frowns. Rose is not in the habit of speaking to herself, so she shrugs and sinks back to her thoughts.
A moment or two later, however, she looks up again, and there it is in front of her. A faerie, no more than three feet tall, stares at her with wide blue eyes.
She doesn’t dare breathe.
The faerie’s gaze is wild, but focused at the same time, staring directly into Rose’s.
For a long time they sit like that. The gossamer-winged creature is shamelessly naked. It, like any faerie, is both male and female, with sky-blue skin, a tiny model of humanity– no, more like the tales of elves, with fairer skin to burn up in the sun and tapered, pointed ears. Of course, faeries are nothing like the evil, murderous elves had been in any true tale.
“Are you Rose?” the creature asks in spiced Common, and for a want of a better pronoun, Rose mentally names it a ‘she’. Nothing male could have a voice so silky.
Her own voice sounds clumsy by comparison, and her reply certainly is. “Um. Yes.”
The faerie laughs like wind through leaves. “Good. This is yours.”
Its tiny hand proffers up a package, no more than a few inches across. “May I ask who this comes from?” Rose murmurs, still afraid of scaring the creature away. She reaches down, offering her palm. The faerie drops the package in her hand.
Rose, taking the utmost care, peels back the brown paper of the package.
“This package is from–” the faerie starts.
“No! Don’t deliver that, Appleberry!” The crackling voice seems to come from above– and then suddenly four faeries drop down from the tree, landing right next to Rose– well, most of them. One lands directly on her head, and she resists, with considerable effort, the urge to swat it away.
Rose stops, midway through unwrapping the package. It’s a circular thing, and surprisingly heavy. She hazards a guess that whatever it is, it is likely made of metal. Obviously some work went into keeping it hidden from the world.
“Please get off of my head,” she says, enunciating each word carefully. A buzzing fills her ears briefly, and then the offending faerie stands in front of her instead, its wings blurring, then settling down.
Bemused, Rose stares at the group of faeries, who are now arguing in their own clicking tongue. Then she looks down at the package again.
“You need to open it!” It’s hard to tell, but Rose thinks that it came from the faerie she first saw. “It’s yours!”
Carefully unwrapping the remnants of the package– to the dismayed buzzes and chitters of the group of fae on the ground– Rose finds a very small egg, white with small black speckles. It feels as though it is made of solid gold. White and black speckled gold. It feels metallic in her grip, as well, smooth. It is not flawless– bumpy and imperfect surface marred as well by a single thin crack.
Speechless, Rose lifts it, shakes it dubiously, letting the brown packaging fall away. Nothing rattles within it. Whatever it is made of, it is solid.
Frowning, the Rose Knight closes her eyes and tries to think as the faeries below chitter, chatter and buzz.
Perhaps the smith might tell her of it. But she has no desire to return to Ith. She could visit Sandrys, but she feels as though that would be a mistake in her current state of mind.
That leaves her with one other choice, and she does not relish it, but she is aware that she will need to speak with him eventually, and that it is inevitable, and that despite her love for Sandrys she once loved him as well.
Lionel, or rather, Lord Lionel, is another of the ruling Lords over the city Triumph. It is he that Rose will visit, she decides. His magic is that of the world, dominating the earth around him.
He is not a normal Lord, preferring to live a simpler life than most. His magic could construct a great castle, but he lives in a mud-brick– or lived, last Rose knew– house in the southwest corner of the city.
Sighing, Rose ignores the chittering faeries, thanks the one who gave her the egg, and walks into the city to find her former lover.
She knocks on the door lightly, rapping with her knuckles.
It is not Lionel who opens the door, but Arin, their son.
“Momma?” He clicks uncertainly.
Rose is struck speechless. Her hand is still upraised. Arin comes up to maybe her bellybutton, so he throws his arms around her. “Momma!”
She gives her mechanical boy an awkward, gentle pat on the back before relenting and reaching down to hug him close.
“Poppa said you were not coming home!”
She wants to tell him, as a pang of guilt runs through her, wants to tell him that she’d never meant to leave, that it had all been a mistake. But she can’t, because if she lied it would break his fragile, glass heart.
“You’ve grown,” Rose says quietly. “Last time I was here you were no more than a babe. Where is poppa, Arin?”
The boy’s smiling, glass face changes with a soft click, to something worried. “Father went down the Bramble Path. He has not come back. I was afraid my key would wind down, that he had left me alone. But when my key ran down the first time, it wound itself back up again!”
“How long has it been, Arin?” Rose asks cautiously. “How long have you been alone?”
She can guess, but she wants to know it in terms of exactitude.
“Twelve weeks, momma,” Arin mumbles. “Is poppa ever coming back?”
“Let me wind you up first,” Rose says, and one hand on Arin’s back, she steps inside the house. The door closes behind her. Most of Lionel’s doors are automatic. That it had not immediately opened for her is not something she wants to think about.
The house is nothing like Sandrys’ castle. There are no grand, vaulted ceilings or hordes of servants. Just simple hallways adorned with half-finished inventions and pieces of art, all Lionel’s, and Arin, his child. Her child.
The walls are scrawled with his neat, flowing script describing incantations and magic theory that is far beyond Rose’s ability. As a girl she had once attempted to learn magic and mechanical theory, but both had evaded her grasp.
She finds what she wants in his room, opening the door and leading Arin in. As it closes behind them, she finally feels like they are in a private enough setting. “Turn around, Arin,” she says quietly. The mechanical boy does as he’s told, and Rose reaches into her pack by her side, pulling out a small winding key. The keyhole for it is on his back, in a place Rose had thought incredibly stupid, as the boy would have a difficult time winding himself up that way.
She had won about several smaller things concerning their son. She had won about him growing, gradually becoming an adult rather than staying a child forever. She had won about his capacity to hate them as well as love them and his blank-slate mind at the beginning so he could grow and develop like a real child.
This had been the price. This and a few defensive countermeasures that Rose had reluctantly agreed might be necessary.
She winds her child back up to full capacity with a few deft turns, then breathes out a soft sigh. “I am going to bring Poppa back, my heart and joy,” she says. “Stay here. If I do not come back in a day, alert the guard.”
She hesitates, then frowns. “But I will come back before then, so do not worry for me.” She hopes Arin will buy into it.
She gazes across the room, at the door on the far side. It is a portal, powered by the key she holds in her hand, long since run down so that even if her former lover had wanted to come back using it he would be unable to.
Rose inserts the key into the portal’s right column. Several places are labelled in his neat script, but Rose is only interested in the one labelled ‘The Bramble Path’. She twists until the script glows, and then the portal yawns wide, a glowing, shimmering veil crackling into existence between the two columns.
The Wanderer takes a deep breath, removes the key and tosses it to Arin, who catches it with a perfect movement. “I love you, Arin,” she whispers, and means it.
“I love you, Momma,” he mumbles in his clicking, childish voice.
She steps through the portal and is gone.
The heat of the Bramble Path hits her like a torch. Her armor is still with the smith, she remembers. All she has with her is her gauntlets, which she carefully dons, taking from her pack and sliding them on one after the other. She is not sure what drew her to follow after Lionel immediately. At the least she should have warned Sandrys first.
At the least she should not have gone alone.
But it is too late to think about that now. She is here, and she must find Lionel before she can face Arin again.
Though he has been gone for twelve weeks, according to Arin, she knows the way time works in the Bramble Path. If she can make it back before nightfall, it will be instant. She’ll have stepped through and stepped back again. If not, though…
She doesn’t want to think about it. It does not bear thinking about. She will make it back.
The Bramble Path stretches on before her, but in the distance to either side she can hear screams, from animals and monsters, human and metal. There is a large battle nearby, but she remembers that is one of the constants of the Path. She wonders what Lionel is looking for in this place, what he thought was so important he could leave Arin alone, leave his city alone for. It wouldn’t be out of character for him, she muses. Merely surprising. Whatever it is must be terribly important.
Oh well, Rose thinks to herself. If he didn’t want her to come help him, he should have told Arin to turn her away at the door.
Her footsteps crunch unusually loud in the dead brambles below her feet. She is glad she still has her iron-shod boots on, as she is certain these brambles would puncture through leather. The thorny walls to either side of the path creak with the wind, which is so hot it’s almost painful. No human could live in this for long.
She feels fortunate to have started in the day. It will give her the time she needs to traverse the path, though if he is further in than a few miles she is unlikely to find him in time to get back.
She does not have long to go before the first Guardian finds her.
It stands beside the path, deceptively still, a tall statue with glowing red eyes hidden beneath a full steel helm. In both hands it clenches a broken sword, which, the last time Rose visited, had been long enough to touch the ground. Now it is in pieces, the shards scattered about the statue’s feet. The statue itself bears a few scars.
She glances at the offering bowl, and needs to do a double-take when she sees something silvery whirling around within. The Guardian has recently claimed a soul.
A sudden panic jumps in her chest, makes her heart beat faster as she realizes what it could mean. Did Lionel fall to the Guardian? Were its new scars because of his attempts to save his life? But Lionel should have- would have- known better than to strike at such a powerful foe. No one had ever defeated the First Guardian in single combat before, let alone the Second and Third.
Satiated, the Guardian makes no move to confront her. Its red-stained sword is slowly absorbing the blood offering already made– its torpor won’t last long.
If she attempts to free Lionel by shattering the bowl, there is no guarantee that the essential pieces of his soul will come with him, and the Guardian will almost certainly claim her as well.
Fighting it now is stupid, she thinks.
Rose starts to walk on.
So faint she can barely hear it, the soul whispers:
and she turns, staring at the offering bowl.
And she knows that it IS Lionel.
And that if she leaves now, he will be dead by the time she returns. Worse than dead. Absorbed as yet another piece of the Guardian.
“Blight’s sake,” she mutters.
Then she grabs the offering bowl in both hands and smashes it to pieces on the stone dais before the statue.
A horrible shriek accosts her ears as she rolls away into a crouch, ducking a heavy swing from a broken sword.
She stands, turns and a stony fist smashes into her open palm, briefly lifting her feet off the ground as she pushes, gasping, and manages to drive the fist away from her body. The sword comes down too. All she has is her gauntlets.
She ducks the blow, stepping in so close the statue isn’t flexible enough to cut her. She can practically feel it move, hears the stony arm whistling through the air- both stony arms as it pulls them in to try to crush her into a hug. But she ducks low, between its legs, stands and, as it turns, lands a solid kick with her iron-shod heel, to its knee joint.
There’s a sharp crack (which she hopes is from the statue) and a dull ache in her foot. Nothing breaks or gives. It turns, swings that sword again in a lightning arc.
Rose can barely follow its trail, but she manages to half-step half-fall backwards and avoid its shattered tip. She takes another uncontrolled step. The Guardian capitalizes on her weakness, leaning on its cracked knee and thrusting forward with the sword. Rose plants a hand in the dirt, pushes herself into another roll across the brambles.
It hurts. Both rolls have cost her punctures she knows she will regret later.
As she rises again, the Guardian has both hands around the sword and swings for her. It overestimates its range, and Rose steps nimbly away, trying to ignore the dozen or so punctures she sustained in her roll.
The Guardian moves surprisingly quickly for its massive bulk. But in truth there is little room on the path for a brawl. As it swings toward her once more, the sword finally catches on the brambles to the left side of the path. Dull and worn from lack of use, it sticks there. Titanic strength or not, the Guardian needs time to wrench it free.
Rose is certain she can’t kill it like this. Not truly. She isn’t sure how to free Lionel, either. She had broken the bowl in the hopes that he would reform nearby and they could flee.
For a moment she freezes.
But it comes to her, as it always does, when she is certain she is out of other options.
As the Guardian tries its best to free its entangled blade, she backs away from it, gritting her teeth. She hasn’t done it in what feels like ages, but the words still come to her. Breathless, she still manages to speak them.
“She who watches both warriors and women,
Who guides us when we fall and holds us
to our oaths
Guide my hands, unfettered by the chains of the physical–
Unchained by the boundaries of my body–
Let me strike with your might!
I dedicate myself to you, o mother that rests
In the dark!”
As the prayer leaves her, she feels a force channeling itself into her hands, using her body, filling the space the words left. A vast, mildly amused presence fills her up, whispering words in her ears that she can only barely understand. She feels charged, powerful, as if her hands are suddenly folded steel and the energy wrapping around them is the veil itself, the portal between the divine and the mortal. The voice whispers:
She lets out a sigh, dropping her hands to her sides for a moment as the Guardian struggles and finally frees its sword. She had only half-expected her patron goddess to lend a hand. It had been a desperate gambit. Now she’ll need to make a shrine if she wins.
And, as always, this is going to hurt. Rose rushes forward.
Drawing back her fist as the Guardian lifts the sword high, Rose slams her fist into the vengeful statue as hard as she can. Her blow, a swift but powerful strike, connects squarely with the statue’s chest. For a moment, a dull ache.
Then, in a timeless second, the magic of her goddess takes effect.
It feels as though her fist explodes. Agony and shock rebound through her hand as her bones crunch under the force of the blow. An explosion rocks through the Guardian as well, stone chips flying, one nicking her cheek, a flash and then wet running down across her neck, dripping from her chin.
The Guardian, for its part, now has a fist-sized hole in its chest, bored right through the center. For a moment a crystal hovers in the center, glowing, then it goes dark and drops, tumbling end over end as it bounces on the stone edge of the statue’s new tunnel and finally lands in the brambles of the path.
Rose clutches her stricken hand, breathing shallow, trying to focus on anything but the sharp-dull pain from her broken fingers, breath hissing between her teeth.
The Guardian is standing stock still.
Comes a voice, and with a start Rose realizes it comes from the sword, still gripped in the Guardian’s hand. Her vision wavering, blurred by tears, she takes a tottering step forward. She takes careful aim, and then swings, this time with her unstricken hand, still awash with energy.
It hurts more, this time. Only one finger breaks, but it breaks spectacularly. She can feel it twist as the reverberating energy rolls through it.
She chokes down a sob, taking a deep breath, trying very hard not to make a sound.
The Guardian’s hand is dust, and the sword hilt is dust as well, leaving a blade on the path.
Shatter the sword.
Rose takes a half-step forward towards the blade.
She lifts her foot, and… hesitates.
She’s doing it again.
She’s risking everything for someone she isn’t sure she can trust. Rose stops, midstep, puts her foot back down again. The pain from her finger and fist is quite potent. The punctures add their stinging pain. Her clothes are torn.
If she is wrong, if her feelings were wrong, manipulated by something… Is it possible that trapped within the sword isn’t Lionel, but a complete stranger? Is it possible that breaking the blade will simply kill Lionel, that he is making a sacrifice to try to bring peace to this part of the Bramble Path?
That would be remarkably selfish of him, she thinks. But Rose can see him doing it, too. A few years ago, when he had been a political target and she stood by his side, she had stopped him from attempting to eat food before his double did to spare the other the chance of being poisoned. You are an idiot, she had said.
She smiles at that, despite the overwhelming pain. Lionel had been, of all her lovers, one of the most selfless she knew of.
She stomps on the sword, putting her remaining strength into her foot, bringing her weight down on the blade. Either it’s Lionel, or some other poor sap. She can’t live with the idea of either trapped in darkness.
As the old, worn blade shatters, her world shatters into pieces of white, leaving her in darkness.
She awakens in darkness, but lying on softness. For a moment she mistakes it for Sandrys’ bed, but the surface is too soft for even that. She feels– no, she is naked.
Rose sits up. She reaches out and is rewarded with stabbing pain in her fingers. She winces and sighs. Her goddess had not been kind to her. She had been helpful, but she had not been kind.
Her finger aches horribly. Her fist stabs at her with dull pain.
She tries to explore the softness, and stops when she realizes where she must be.
She is in Lionel’s bed.
She recognizes the softness as down. Featherdown, from one of Lionel’s many pets. Abruptly, the room is filled with light, and Rose screws up her eyes.
It’s a voice she hasn’t heard in ages. In literal years.
“Yes?” she finds herself asking weakly. “Lionel?”
The inventor Prince, when she can make him out against the harsh glare, looks positively ragged.
His beard is unkempt, his eyes are grey and dark rings stain the skin beneath them, his fingernails are dirty and his smile is wan and thin. He looks gaunt and pale, even more so than usual.
“How long were you trapped in that sword?” she asks, aghast. “How were you trapped in the first place? Had I not come along, you could have been killed!”
“Three nights and two days, by my reckoning,” Lionel says, his tone more than a little melancholy. “No sooner did I first set out than I was accosted by and drained by the First Guardian. Fortunately, because he caught me so early, I had the willpower to resist him for three nights and two days. If you had not saved me, on the third day I would have been completely absorbed.”
“What fool travels the Bramble Path at night?” Rose asks, feeling irritation leap into her heart as much as relief. “You know that is when the Guardians walk. Would you leave Arin alone forever?”
“And why should that matter to the mother who already had left him forever?”
Lionel’s words leave Rose breathless. They sink in and cut like knives, leaving terrible holes in her heart.
She has no answer. Her mouth opens, and no words escape. He’s right. She hadn’t meant to return. She had left her son as surely as Lionel had.
Lionel looks very much like he wishes he could take the words back. His eyes close and he pinches the bridge of his nose. “Rose-”
“You meant it,” she says simply. “Do not cheapen it by going back on it. It cannot be done now.”
The Prince gives her a dark frown. “Thank you, for rescuing me, Rose Knight.”
It stings to hear him say it like that. She had not expected it to sting. “No thanks are necessary. Were I trapped, you would do the same.”
A pause, a silence so deep that it seems nothing could fill it. Rose wonders what he must be thinking, wonders how, why he had chosen to walk the Path. To go at night would have been tantamount to suicide. Was it suicide she had rescued him from? She cannot judge from those empty eyes alone.
“Why did you come looking for me?” Lionel asks, finally filling the void with another, a question that must be answered.
Rose sighs, reaches into the pocket of her pack and removes the curious metal egg, wincing as her knuckles brush the edges of the fabric. She passes it to Lionel, who takes it gingerly. “Delivered to me by fae,” she adds. “I was hoping you could help.”
“Does Sandrys know about it?” Lionel murmurs.
She shakes her head. “I have not yet told her. Why?”
Lionel gives Rose an odd look. There is a crashing from the main hall. Rose stands immediately. Lionel stands as well.
Rose’s body aches abominably, but she holds it together for a few steps before she stumbles and Lionel catches her. With a grumbled curse she tries to pull away from him and ends up nearly falling flat on her face. She is dizzy, her body unused to the sudden movement. Gods alone know how much time she spent unconscious.
“Arin?” Lionel calls. Silence answers him. For a moment, all Rose hears is her own breathing, Lionel’s breathlessness.
A grunt. And then, louder, a growl.
It’s a deep, guttural noise that bespeaks teeth and fetid breath. A shriek, metal on metal. Another crash, a thud that sends tremors through her.
“Lionel-” she whispers. “Get Arin and flee. Escape through the back door.”
Her former lover squeezes her side with his arm. She can almost feel the fear radiating off of him. The confusion. “What is it…?”
Rose shakes her head, still dizzy. She tries hard to wrench free of his grip, to push him away, but finds she can’t overpower him, though he trembles with the effort of holding her. Lionel, the skinny inventor prince. The runt of his own royal family, and yet she cannot escape his hold. “Get out of here,” she hisses. “Leave me!”
Despite his own confusion and fear, he seems to grasp onto her own distress.
“No,” he whispers back. “You are not leaving again- I will not leave you again-”
The growl again. A wrenching crash and then a sound that sends chills down Rose’s spine. A howl, loud and mournful, echoes through the house.
Rose desperately wishes she had her plate. Her shield. Her hands are on fire, her whole body aches where the brambles punctured her. She is not ready for this, not ready for the hound to find her here.
“This is not an argument, Lionel-” she growls, her heart jumping into her throat. “You cannot face down a hound in your state-”
“And you can?” he snaps back under his breath. “You will die the same as I!”
The sound of padding feet, the scent of rotting corpses reaches her ears, her nose. Her whole body is inundated with it, etching her fate in stone. Any doubt she had about the intruder’s identity is gone. “Let go! It’s attacking our son!”
She rams her knee into Lionel’s stomach. His grip slackens and she takes full advantage of it, pulling away from him and out through the door.
The growl again, excited this time. She’s been heard, without a doubt. Scented. Her heart seizes with fear.
She staggers through the hall, towards the sound of the growl, against every instinct but one. She’d heard metal screeching before.
“Arin!” she shouts.
The howl again– joined by another, and then a third! How many hounds…?
And she opens the door to the main hall to find all three of them and yet two more, amidst debris, inventions strewn about. One stands over the fallen body of Arin, a paw on the clockwork boy’s chest, its skull-like head baring razor’d, bony teeth. All of them look her way with their eerie, burning eyes, each near up to her chest. The dread markings of the Glen Beneath mar their flesh. The scent of rotting flesh is overwhelming and putrid even at a distance.
Arin isn’t moving.
“Blight,” she whispers. Five hounds? Five? At peak fighting form, with armor and arms, Rose could barely handle one when she had taken Sorcerer’s sword. Her weapon– a stout mace, at the time– had broken upon killing impact with that hound’s skull.
With a broken hand and finger, Rose is dead. Lionel is dead. Arin is dead.
Five hounds from the Glen could kill fifteen good, well trained men and come away with nothing more than scratches, even if those men were armed with steel and swords.
Rose freezes in place, speechless with fear, standing stock still, helpless in the concerted gazes of those five hounds from hell.
One speaks, and to Rose’s surprise, what before was, fighting the first hound for the Sorcerer’s sword, gibberish, is now perfectly understandable:
“Give us the soul-pact, Wanderer, or be cut before your time.”
It does not, of course, make it easier to understand what they want. “What-” she starts, but her voice cracks and she cannot continue, her throat, her lungs clogged with rot and death. Her body shakes with fear, cold sweat drenching her from head to toe.
She can see the creatures before her tensing, the hounds readying themselves to pounce.
She can’t find the words. Her shaking body feels utterly helpless before the hounds, and in that moment, Rose is sure she will die.
One leaps for her. Its paws strike her first, then its weight, bearing her down.
Pain jabs crazily through her hand in piercing, fragile splinters as it strikes the ground, as she strikes the ground. It blossoms out from her head as it smacks the floor. Rot and hunger fill her lungs as she takes in a breath and lets out a panicked gasp.
Let me live. Goddess, let me live.
Her eyes close.
To her surprise, they open again, moments later, as strong light touches on them.
She blinks in the harsh light, the sudden brightness.
There is no weight on her chest.
She stands, glancing around her, taking in her surroundings, squinting. She is standing on a plain of infinite grey. Beneath her feet, her bare toes, she feels cold metal. She does not feel any aches or pains at all.
She lifts her hands, staring at them. One is clenched, so she turns it over and unclenches her fingers.
In the center of one of her palms, cupped, is the metal acorn.
“A soul-pact,” murmurs a voice in her ear. She stiffens. Whirls.
Someone– something– stands before her, on taloned feet. She has the impression of red scales, of a flicking tail tipped with a spade, of a monstrous presence far beyond her. Three-fingered hands– could they really be fingers? They have more in common with knives, it seems– stretch out for her, and she recoils, tries to step back and stumbles.
For a sickening, lurching second it seems that she will fall. There is nothing behind her.
Then one of those three-fingered hands catches her about the wrist and yanks her back up toward that demonic body. She realizes that without thinking her fingers are curled around the acorn again. She realizes, also, that she is naked.
Her armor, gone.
Red scales touch her bare skin– smooth rather than rough. Before so terrible a foe, naked and exposed, Rose is acutely aware of her own ecstasy, of her fierce joy at finding a foe capable of defeating her, of lifting her and toying with her so completely.
It conflicts so wholly with her other feelings that she lets out a choked sob, disgusted with herself. She tries to twist out of the creature’s grip, before she realizes that to do so would send her plummeting into darkness, that the only light in this void comes from the creature which now holds her.
Creature? No, she decides, when it becomes apparent she has time to decide. This is no creature. Despite the lack of features indicating it, the voice had been feminine. Underneath the monstrous exterior she knows this beast is female.
She snorts, stifling a giggle, tears on her cheeks. She feels hysterical. That at any moment she might just give, that her mind was a stacked house of cards that has just come tumbling down, or will come down any second, with every further breath, hot on her bare skin, from between four tusks out of nightmare. Razor teeth meet her eyes for a moment. The beast seems to draw in a scent, her scent.
“You are Rose.”
The demoness does not sound uncertain. Why disappoint her?
“I am,” Rose replies, breathless. “What… who are you?”
“I am the Lady of the Glen, Rose Knight, and you are in my domain.”
Wander’s heart stops a moment. She twists then. Anything is better than this, must be better than this. She is dead. “No-”
“Yes. You have entered my circle.”
“I– I prayed–”
“And you live. I heard your prayer, Wander.”
“Heard-” Rose stares up at the Lady incredulously, dangling. Her attempts to escape have wrought nothing but ache. “Goddess?”
“What… what do you mean?” Rose asks, trying to stall for time, so she might clear her head.
“The acorn in your hand. It is a soul-pact. It is my soul-pact. It binds you to me. You did not answer the call at first. But then you called to me, and I knew where you would be. Give me the soul-pact so the binding can complete.”
Rose shivers, staring into the demoness’– the Goddess’– eyes. “I–”
Her heart is cold. Her entire body is cold, almost numb. Dimly, blearily, she realizes that the cold emanates not from the demoness, but from the abyss behind her, from the endless nothing.
“I cannot decide-”
“You have already arrived at your decision. Out with it. I have not watched you strive, come this far, to fall to pieces at the impossible. You define the impossible.”
Rose shakes her head, “What is true? You are my Goddess? The one I pray to when I strike down my foes? You are the mistress of the hounds of the Glen?”
The Goddess shakes her tusked head. “I do not control the hounds. A false Lady has arisen in the city of Triumph. These hounds serve her because she has more belief gathered to her.”
The clawed fingers around Rose’s middle squeeze. The knight digs her fingers into the scaled wrist, but her hands ache, her body feels raw and sore from head to toes.
“How can I finish a pact which will sell my soul?” To her own ears, Rose sounds weak and shaky.
“You have already pledged so much to me, Rose Knight. I ask only more. Give me this pact or I will be forced to send you back, and you will die.”
And there it is. Rose simply cannot afford to die. She chokes down a frustrated sob.
She releases the pact, wincing at the ache in her finger. Moving with surprising speed, the Lady of the Glen grasps the pact in one enormous fist.
Rose is not sure what she expected to happen. A flash of light, maybe. Sparks. Glowing magic. Instead there is nothing. She feels no different as the Goddess takes her soul.
The voice gains a hard, steel edge. “Rose. In my service, bound to me, you will have access to the power you need to stop these hounds– but on one condition.”
Rose, feeling dizzy and lightheaded, nods.
“There is a temple to my likeness in the human city of Triumph. You will go there and find a man named Forge. You will slay him and offer his heart upon the altar. This will stop the faith in the false Lady that has arisen, she who now seeks to control my hounds. You understand me. You will do this as my champion. As the hot-blooded avatar of my war aspect.”
The world around Rose, the infinite grey plain, slowly begins to fade. The warm grip of her Goddess’ scaly fingers around her recedes, and reality begins to come back to her.
She reaches up and rolls over, crushing the hound’s throat in her fingers easily, smashing it against the floor and standing in one smooth movement. She barely has time to catch her bearings. There’s fire in her.
Fire in her veins. One hound leaps. Rose’s foot lashes out, tip cloaked in grey. Smashes through the hound’s head, the skull shattering with a thunderclap. Her vision is streaked with shadow as it spills from the hound’s rent neck. Grey splashes the walls. A shout from behind her. Lionel.
Another two hounds, the third asynchronously, charge for her. Her Goddess’ power boils in her blood. Sickens her. Elevates her.
The fourth is nowhere to be seen, but there are growls behind her– it is after Lionel.
Rose pirouettes, turns. Her hand closes around the first hound’s throat. Her foot lifts, smashes into the second’s middle as it closes in. She grasps, ducks down, turning, slamming. Two hounds tumble together and smash into the floor. The second flies over her head and crashes through the far wall.
Rose shakes. She knows, looking at her fingers and hands, that they should be on fire. But they aren’t. Her goddess is shielding her from the pain. She kicks the hounds while they are down and struggling to rise. One, then the other. Her first strike smashes through a hound’s bared skull, dousing the flames. Her second kick misses the mark and crunches into the hound’s neck.
It whines at her. Kicks, struggles, and then is still, whether because it is dead or incapacitated– Rose does not care.
The power within leaves her of a sudden. Her legs shake. She staggers, reaches out, grasps for a shelf but only finds a wall. Her finger aches, but it does not feel as though it is broken anymore.
A small, tinny groan comes from the fallen clockwerk boy.
“Arin?” she asks, and her heart leaps in her chest. The metal boy pushes himself to his feet.
Lionel rushes over to his side, for which Rose is grateful. Seeing the big mother hen of a princeling dote over their child stings, but not as much as her own inadequacy would in its place.
She sways on her feet, stares at the pair of them. Lionel looks up at her, fear in his eyes. By his side, one of his own weapons, a short-barreled invention a bit like a crossbow, smokes. He’d used it to kill the fourth of the hounds. “Rose… Why are these hounds after you?”
Rose just shakes her head.
“Where did they come from?”
Another shake. Rose turns away and walks to the door and, opening it, staggers out into Triumph, towards the Temple District.
©2016 Sam Oliver (Eris)
Part two of Rose Knight.