Aed and some of his band wait for her in the city, and they find her before she’s made it two streets. Her first inkling is the crossbow bolt as it flies past her nose and embeds itself in the wall next to her. She takes a step out of the alleyway to find the street almost entirely deserted. Aed has three friends now, not simply one, and stares at her. Among his friends he counts two mercenaries with crossbows (one of whom rewinds his) and a man holding a sword easily as large as Rose.
She mentally measures the distance to the nearest unlocked door– the library. With their crossbows and their speed they could catch and kill her before she made it, she’s fairly certain, and they stand between her and the temple district.
Rose sags. “And me, without my armor,” she mutters. “Good day, Aed. You have my attention. Whose did I attract today?”
“Ulmir, Lord of the Temple District,” he says grimly. “If you leave the city, I’m told you’ll be allowed your life.”
“I have business to conclude here before I leave,” Rose replies flatly. “And my life is already forfeit until I’ve completed it. You know Sandrys will not allow you to kill me unpunished.”
Aed’s expression does not change. “She is aware of the office of commissions. She is aware of the consequences of what she asked you to do. My employer is not ungracious. If you give us the Sorcerer’s Sword then we will also allow you to pass unharmed, Rose Knight.”
Rose pauses a moment, wondering if he’s actually being serious. Then she laughs. “I no longer have it. Even if I did, I would not give it.” She sets herself, takes in a deep breath and sighs, staring Aed in the eyes. “Come then. I haven’t the time to do this gently.”
Two bolts hiss towards her, but she steps between them. A blade swings for her head in a wide arc, but Rose turns and it misses by a hair’s breadth. She feels it tug at two strands as it passes. She widens her stance, sets herself, and slams one armored, open palm into the swordsman’s chest. She catches the head of Aed’s enchanted warhammer with the other.
The swordsman staggers back, mouth open, sword lost from nerveless fingers. The plate he wears is caved inward, grey fire licking at it. He drops.
Rose squeezes the head of the warhammer and yanks, ignoring the crackling electricity as it wreathes her nerves in fire, tugging it free of Aed’s grip and tossing it away. It throws up sparks as it strikes the dust. Aed curses, draws and thrusts for her with a belt dagger in the same fluid movement. Rose turns out with his jab and feels it draw a razor line along her side. She uses the momentum, brings down her other hand in a chop to Aed’s neck. There’s a resounding crack, a gurgle, and he sinks like a stone.
The swordsman struggles to gain his feet. The crossbowmen struggle to rewind their winches, as she approaches one drops the crossbow and flees down the street and the other draws his short-sword, abandoning the winding.
“You will have a better shot at running,” Rose says flatly. “Go on.”
The mercenary stares at his fallen comrades and something sets in his eyes a fraction of a second before Rose moves.
The sword comes in but she grabs the blade and turns it aside. Her gauntleted first sinks into the crossbowman’s stomach with a heavy, wet thud. Rose’s eyes close a moment as she tugs her fist free red and lets the man drop like Aed had.
The swordsman rises, wavers on his feet, gasping, and Rose gives him a blank look. He swallows, catching his breath, shakes his head, sinking to his knees again, wheezing. The Goddess’ fire crackles over his chest for a few more moments before fading, and he sits there, hands on his knees, unable or unwilling to rise again to face her.
“I liked your old friend better,” she says to Aed’s unmoving body, a touch of bitterness in her voice. “And I liked it when we worked together and not to kill one another. Better times and better fortunes, Aed.”
The track of her wound stings in the air through the tear in her tunic, bleeding sluggishly.
Such children he’d brought with him. One for certain will die thanks to her touch. The other may never fight again. And Aed himself– she’d be surprised if he ever got up after that. Her goddess teaches harsh lessons. The harshest of them.
The Rose Knight takes in a deep breath and moves into the temple district.
The streets are unpaved. The district had been brought up from the bare earth and then left, ancient shrines to the wilderness kept intact for fear of disturbing the spirits who might inhabit them. As Triumph was built up around it, the Temple District was allowed to go almost entirely unchanged. Only the newer gods near the outskirts of this part of the city have grand temples paying them homage, and Wander’s Goddess is not among their number.
They tower over her, their stone guardians staring down at her sternly. Their stone steps feel unapproachable, their gates barred to her in ways they never felt before. Her devotion to death, to the Lady of the Glen, seems to bar her way as much as it guides her. Doors are closed to her. Doors that perhaps had never truly been open in the first place.
Rose feels naked without her armor. The metal gloves she wears were enough for Aed and his lot because they underestimated her. If she underestimates this man, this Forge, she could find herself in far worse peril. She has not the time to pick up her armor, however. This sacrilege cannot be allowed to stand any longer. She can’t give this traitorous prophet any time to stir up more trouble, to make worse use of her goddess’ guardians.
The air is acrid, as she nears the heart of the district. The perfumed incense from the greater temples fades, gives way to the rank animal stink of the primal shrines at the district’s center. The sharp scent of blood reaches her nose, makes her wrinkle it, looking around for the source. There are trees now to every side– it reminds her of the wood before Triumph’s gates, has the same sense of inimitable danger. The source of the overwhelming smell of blood, however, is nowhere to be seen.
Then, as she rounds a bend in the street, she sees the old temple of the Glen Beneath and her heart is given pause in her chest.
The Lady’s image has been defiled, the statue’s scaled chest rent open and painted with filth, her tail snapped clean free. The great double doors have been pierced by bony spines. The temple roof has been twisted from its ornate beginnings into something primal and hideous. Its dark shadow falls across her like death itself and steals her breath away.
Before the steps to the temple are two caricatures of bone, skeletal men wielding spine swords. Their skulls are open in permanent and foul grimaces, and rather than clean the bone looks as though tattered remnants of muscle, sinew or flesh still stick to it. The scent of rot is overpowering.
With them are two hounds, who stretch, cat-like, rising and staring at her with predatory flames for eyes. Despite herself, a certain excitement, familiar and beautiful, makes her heart pound.
The bones reanimated– those are the work of nothing less than a necrophage. She’s certain of that. Either the man Forge has created one, or has become one himself. She’s set for a terrible fight.
The hounds come for her first, both at once, leaping for her. The bone men are behind them, but not far.
The Rose Knight smashes one fist into the first of the hounds, grey power filling her arm. It doesn’t shatter her like she feels it should. The power wraps her fist as though one with it rather than forcing it.
She follows through with the punch, feels her metal-sheathed knuckles tear right through the hound, all along its immense body. The power ripples outward, rending its innards and its muscle and turning it to a sad pile of sinew, grey fire and bone. Her blow carries her past the second hound’s leap. There’s a flash of bright sensation at her side– she knows that one of its clawed paws grazed her. But she follows the punch to its end, leaving the corpse of the rent first hound where it lies to focus on the bone swordsmen.
She blocks a chop with one hand and laughs as she feels the spine-sword tear through her armor and dig into her palm. “Not good enough!” she snaps. “Not nearly good enough!”
She clenches her hand and the spines dig in. She smashes her free fist into the bone man’s ribs. They shatter into a thousand shards, the cracks reverberating through its entire body. In pieces, the skeleton falls, the white magic fire in its eyes winking out.
Wander ducks as a chop sails past her head, pushes one hand out to stop its backswing, and throws her fist through the skeletal man’s skull. As her other hand closes around its bony wrist, her gauntlet dusts its teeth and sends a cloud of old rotting fragments spattering the temple steps. Again, white fire winks out, and the bones collapse.
Blood oozes around her clenched fingers from the holes the spiny sword had left in her hand, but the pain just makes her grin.
The padding, the pause as the hound behind her leaps. She can practically feel its breath as she spins. Claws rake her back, leaving red tracks she’ll pay for, but later. She smashes her fist into the hound’s jaw, the backhand sending it flying. It slams against the trunk of an oak, sending shattered bark and splinters into the air, and then slumps to the ground, a rain of acorns pattering against it as the tree above it shakes.
Blood dripping from her clenched fist, Rose takes in a few calming breaths, heart’s pounding easing. She can feel the blood welling up from the gashes on her back and the graze at her side, but they don’t feel deep enough for her to be worried. The burning, stinging pain focuses her, grits her teeth, sets her mouth into a grim line.
She pushes open the broad double doors as she ascends the steps, and enters the temple of her Goddess, the Lady of the Glen Beneath.
It’s a large open room that greets her. There are side passages, but they’ve been barred off by bone. At the other end of the room, standing there waiting for her, is a man that Rose is certain is Forge. He’s wreathed in her Goddess’ stolen fire.
At his side is an apparition, a tall creature– two heads above Rose herself, easily– with a cow’s skull for a head and horrible black eyes. Its body is sinew and muscle, its arms thick around as small trees and its legs thick trunks. Its tail, long and scaly, ends in a wicked-looking sting. In one hand it carries an axe with a haft as tall as Rose and a terrible head to it, curved and serrated, shining black and unbloodied.
Weary already from the journey, Rose feels the air itself seem to sap her strength as she takes a step forward. She’s never faced a mightier foe, she’s certain.
Forge himself is wearing dark robes, stylized with twisted effigies of her Goddess– dark and terrible ones, her cruel war aspect, and in one hand carries a staff. Like the sword she’d carried long before, she recognizes its plainness, its withered, aged look– it’s one of the artifacts of the Sorcerer. Rose lets out a sigh.
“Forge,” she says flatly. “You’ve taken that which is not rightfully yours.”
“Wanderer,” he says softly. “Would that we could meet under better circumstances.”
Rose’s wounds sting and she shakes her head. “There are no other circumstances under which we could meet.”
“Will you not listen?” There’s a plea to his voice. He seems not so resigned as she.
“You know why I have come. The Goddess demands your life.” Rose feels empty as the words leave her mouth, but she shrugs the feeling away. She can feel the air around her suck at her, tease the breath from her lungs. She throws it off as best as she can. The Knight gets the distinct impression that Forge is stalling her.
“Surely we can talk this over,” he says, taking a step back. Rose recognizes the fear in his eyes, then, knows he’s stalling her. She can’t afford to listen to him any more. His magic is draining at her. “Surely there is some way we can work together, some way I can convince you to let me be.”
“Sorcery,” she says with a heavy sigh, and shakes her head. “We are done talking.”
She takes a step forward. The abomination next to Forge breaks into motion.
Something as large as that beast has no right to move as fast as it does. In a matter of moments it is upon her. She throws herself aside as the axe crashes down, but tucks herself into a ball and rolls. It brings that axe up for another swing, and Rose swings for its legs. It moves faster than she can credit, avoiding her blow entirely. The axe smashes down an inch from her as she steps to the side, spitting stone shrapnel up into her.
The shards stick in her skin. It lifts its foot, kicks at her, but she sidesteps that blow as well, and fast as it is, it can’t move at all on only one leg. This time her blow connects.
The scent of it, its fetid breath and its horrible rotting stench both are intense this close. Her fist drives a hole through its knee, and its leg buckles. It near falls atop her, but she dives behind it.
She doesn’t see the sting move. Rose has no time to blink or to speak– it spears through her middle and feeds molten agony into her veins. It whips her about like a doll. Motion, the world spins crazily, and then a bone-shattering smash as she finally fetches up against a wall, leaving a red smear on her way down.
Dimly, she’s aware that she’s bitten through her tongue. Something that tastes a lot like iron and salt is filling her mouth. The pain is oddly numb, and as her heart stutters she realizes she’s been envenomed. She spits red so she doesn’t choke on it, stares up through vision already hazy with tears at the creature as it struggles to rise on its one leg. Blood is streaming down from the hole she’d made in its knee. That gives her heart. If it’s living, it can die.
The Rose Knight tries to rise and finds that her legs are jelly, will barely support her. For a moment she’s worried that, like others she’s known with similar wounds to hers, she may never walk properly again. But the hole through her middle has not magically cut her legs. She simply finds that whatever sucking force was working at her before is working much faster now that she has a hole in her, not mere gashes and cuts. She can feel that foul sorcery fizzing in her, as well as the burn of the venom from the creature.
She spits blood again. Her tongue aches dully, but she forms words regardless.
“Goddess, give me strength to kill my enemies,” she murmurs. “Failing that, give me a good death.”
Grey fire tingles as it wraps around her arms, hisses around her belly. And Rose stands, buoyed up by her Goddess’ fire, breathing uneven but strong once more.
“Wander,” the grey fire seems to whisper. “Rose.”
“Victory,” the Rose Knight says quietly, staring down the struggling monster. It lurches towards her, lifting that axe.
This time, as she comes in, she turns, and the bare tip of the axe brushes her. Since it’s already sunk low, she twists and no, here comes the tail– she jumps, and her timing is exquisite. When she lands, the tail is under one boot, smashed into the stone. She pivots on it, twists her whole body into it, delivers one, two, three punches in rapid succession to the creature’s middle, rock solid blows. The creature throws a fist out at her and she brings both hands up and catches it. It grinds her back along its own tail, across the floor. She almost slips, but digs her heels in and it’s the tiles that give.
Rose pours her energy, her fire, into pulling. A chop of her hand, her fist grasping two big fingers. She tears its hand free and tosses it aside. It spatters the floor with red, spatters her armor with red, and she laughs. Her gauntlet is dented. She think she can see the white of bone sticking out from the rent metal. Her hand is broken. She’d barely felt it.
The beast tugs on the axe. She lands a stamping kick to the weapon’s haft, which splinters. She grasps the remainder, near the axe’s head, wrenches it from the floor tile. The creature falls back, its own tugging overbalancing it on its weak leg. Rose brings the axe down in a heavy chop that severs its good leg all the way through at the thigh. Another spray of blood. It pools beneath the monster as it thrashes.
Rose leaves the axe embedded, once more, in the floor tile. The beast lets out a grinding rattle of a cry from its new position on the floor, tries to reach her, sitting up. Rose leaps.
She bears it down again with a thunderous crash. Its remaining hand grips at her, finds no purchase on the Knight’s blood-slick skin and clothes, grasp around her instead and squeezes. It’s immensely strong, but too stupid to throw her away. Rose hears the crick-crack of her ribs and just doesn’t care. She brings both fists down, no thought or discipline, just rage. One fist, the other, smashes through the creature’s skull and into the tile. Its fingers go limp around her, animated no longer.
Rising, her Goddess dulling the stabbing pain in her chest as she takes in a breath, Rose moves towards Forge.
The man has the staff out in front of him as if warding off an abomination. Inwardly, Rose wonders how she must look to have earned that gesture. In one hand Forge has gathered shadow and stolen fire, and he hurls it at Rose. It approaches in a crackling, black-tinged wave that throws odd shadows across the floor.
“No fear,” whispers the voice of her Goddess. The flames twist around her and leave her unharmed. “Walk unchallenged, Wander Rose.”
He’s a stick of a thing, his eyes all fear and his robes fluttering about him as a great wind blows in through the temple. Were her hair not slicked down with blood, it’d flick about her.
“No further, Glen-spawn!” Forge snaps, his voice authoritative, his eyes afraid.
Wander steps up the few stone steps near the altar, past it towards Forge. “Meet your death with dignity.”
“I will not die here,” he growls. “But you will.”
Forge thrusts the staff towards her. Arcing grey lightning leaps from its tip. Rose takes in a breath, lets it out in a heavy sigh. The lightning washes over her, through her, and into the tile of the temple, which shatters all at once and all throughout. Her nerves spark with agony. Her Goddess protects her from the grey death of the lightning, leaving only the pain. Pain which Rose simply ignores.
Forge cries out as the stone shards fly, covering his face.
Rose crosses the last few steps to him, ignoring the new complaints from stone shards embedded in her, batters his arms aside with a crack, grasps Forge around the throat.
And she pauses there, staring into those fearful eyes. He jabs the staff for her middle and she grabs the staff near its tip, yanks it from his grip and tosses it aside.
She drags Forge with her to the altar, lifts him as easily as she might an empty sack, and smashes him down against the stone. His head lolls back and his eyes are closed. She can feel his breath through her grip on his throat, feel his pulse. He isn’t dead.
She stares at him.
“Finish,” whispers her Goddess. “Destroy him.”
Rose lifts her fist. She stares at Forge. She lowers her fist.
“He’s beaten,” she says. She leaves Forge asprawl on the altar and moves to his staff, reaches down, picks it up. “His power is broken. He is broken.”
The Rose Knight moves back to Forge’s unmoving body, spits blood on the shattered floor again as she does. Pain is starting to come back. But her limbs still function.
She checks through the man’s robes and removes a knife from them, sends it skittering across the altar floor. Then she lifts him up with one arm, the staff in the crook of her elbow now that her hand is starting to send twinges of shattered pain to her, and she walks.
Rose steps out through the double doors.
She drops Forge outside the temple and she pulls the doors closed behind her. Then she picks Forge back up and continues to walk.
When she reaches the edge of the Temple District, she continues. Her Goddess hasn’t forsaken her, it seems– the grey fire continues to fill her.
“You defy me.” The voice doesn’t sound angry. Surprised, perhaps. “What have you to gain from Forge’s life?”
“There’s a bounty on bandits and criminals in this city,” Rose replies simply. “I need to pay for my armor.”
She carries Forge to the the office of commissions and picks up her pay. Impersonating a priest– a capital crime. Defiling the temple of the Lady– a worse one. They thank her for her service and she walks out again, leaving a trail of red and taking in the stares of those around her.
The city parts for her. Triumph is crowded towards the late evening. The crowds, however, split around her, avoiding her as a stream parts around a rock or a tree.
She takes her pay to Ith Sol, who seems unsurprised to see her, but raises his eyebrows at her condition. “Rose.”
Wander shakes her head. “No more. I am an Avatar for the Lady of the Glen, and it is by her authority that I live. I am Paladin Wander, now.”
“Nevertheless, we know you as Rose Knight, and that shall be your name for a while,” Ith says quietly. “Word is spreading that Aed is dead by your hand. You should watch yourself.”
Rose waves that off. “I left him broken, not dead. The words will change when he regains consciousness. In any case, he came for me on commission.” She sincerely hopes that she didn’t kill Aed. Last she left she was fairly certain he was not dead. “Have you my armor and shield?”
“Aye. Do you want a sack for it, or…”
“I’ll put it on. Have you a back room for me, Ith?”
He shakes his head. “I’ve a curtain, though.”
Rose snorts. “That will suit. Thank you.”
The smith puts up the curtain, veiling Rose from view. She doesn’t need to step free of her clothes, just has never been comfortable changing into her armor in the open– perhaps with good reason.
In the minutes it takes to don it, she feels woozy and sick to her stomach. When she’s finally put on the last piece and she feels secure in her second skin, she straps the shield to the broken hand, wincing slightly at the spikes of pain it sends up her arm. She grips it experimentally. Her Goddess’ fire continues to lift her up and protect her from the worst of her pain.
She pays Ith Sol for his craftsmanship, thanks him for his work, and moves to step from behind the curtain.
“Rose Knight,” he says softly, and she pauses. “You are a good woman. I heard tell you saved Lionel from an assassination attempt earlier today.”
Wander cracks half a smile. Her tongue isn’t bleeding anymore, for which she’s thankful, but the red wound still aches. “I did that. It was more to save myself though.”
“Whatever the reason– you saved the Prince as well. He’s well liked in Triumph.” A pause. Ith shakes his head and gives her the coin she paid him back. “It was no large work. Gods bless you, Rose Knight. And- I am sorry, for earlier. But what I spoke is truth.”
Rose takes in a shuddering breath that sends sparks of pain through her broken ribs, shakes her head. “You spoke what you felt is right. That is all.” She presses the coins back into his hand. “You need this for your family more than I for my drink. Good eve and better fortunes, Ith Sol.”
Then, before he can refuse her, she strides out through the curtain and back into the city of Triumph.
A maid admits her into Lady Sandrys’ inner sanctum. Maids remove her armor, and at this point Rose is so tired she doesn’t care.
She carries the staff into Sandrys’ room with her, unarmored and unarmed otherwise.
“San,” she starts.
“Wander,” Sandrys says, looking up at her with a smile and then her face falls. “Wander!”
Pink magic wraps up Rose and plucks at her. But the grey fire of her Goddess makes it wash over Rose without any effect at all.
The Rose Knight sighs, shoulders sagging. “Stop that, San, and let me talk.” She’d longed for the touch of that magic again, but had also dreaded its ability to take her free will away. For now, at least, it seems she can speak without fear of Sandrys affecting her thoughts or desires.
Sandrys, seeming in shock– whether because her magic doesn’t work or over Rose’s state, nods.
“I bring the Sorcerer’s Staff,” she says quietly. “And a message from the Lady of the Glen.” Her Goddess had been very specific about this message when she first started carrying the staff.
Rose tosses the staff towards Sandrys, who blinks, nudges it aside with her foot, looking at Rose expectantly.
Rose closes her eyes a moment and sighs. “The message is this: The relics of the Sorcerer are not to be trifled with. Bind them deep within the earth, destroy them, or keep them as trophies, but do not use them for your own gains, for they are artifacts imbued with stolen aspects of my power. Do not make the same mistake that Forge did, or that the spirit of the Sorcerer did, Lady Sandrys.”
Sandrys sits on the bed, stock still. Eventually, “Is that all?” she asks quietly.
Wander nods. The grip of her Goddess leaves her. Pain snaps through her body, no longer dull, but sharp and horrible. She clutches at her mouth, shakes on her feet and collapses as the agony of her broken ribs spikes at her. Her knees smack the carpet.
“Oh, Wander, my love…” Sandry’s voice. “My dear Rose.”
Pink power suffuses her, pulls her in close and lays her on the bed. One of Sandrys’ hands strokes through her ropey, dried-blood covered hair. The magic wraps her up and sucks at the aches and pains of her body, but unlike the Goddess’ magic, it pulls them away from her entirely instead of simply dulling them. She can feel Sandrys’ magic reworking her, remaking her, healing her body.
“What happened?” the Lady Sandrys asks softly.
Rose tries to smile. She almost manages a laugh, coughs. “I went to see the smith,” she says, that half-grin on her lips. San rolls her eyes, though, so Wander Rose sighs. And there, on Sandrys’ bed, suffused and comforted by the magic of her lover, she tells her story.
And when she’s finished, she sleeps well into the following day.
©2016 Sam Oliver (Eris)
The third and final part of Rose Knight.