Freebie Mondays: The Guardian’s Final Task

Freebie Mondays: The Guardian’s Final Task

When I asked my Facebook group which character they’d like to hear more about, they almost unanimously chose Rose.

After my Seven Deadly Domerins series, I played around with the idea of another series of Heavenly Virtues prompts. I only ever did one in the past, and they’re an interesting group of traits to consider. But I write a lot about Domerin (as you may have noticed) so I wanted to dedicate the project to someone else. At first, I wasn’t sure if I had enough available Roses to make it work. No one has quite as many incarnations as Domerin. But after considerable thought, I managed to find just enough.

The first Heavenly Rose featured the virtue of chastity. The next one tackled humility. Next came patience, followed by temperance and kindness.

We’re rounding the final legs of the journey with diligence, defined as: constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken; persistent exertion of body or mind. This is another one of those stories that has been in the back of my head for awhile. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, or if this will become a debunked canon that doesn’t end up fitting anywhere. Still, it was fun to play with the idea!
. . .

It had been a long time since the power surrounding her became active, dragging her from the sweet, warm embrace of oblivion. Not as long as she anticipated, and perhaps not long enough. Though perhaps there could never be such a thing for one such as herself.

She would have been content to sleep forever, the last shards of her soul locked in the depths of the crystal necklace she had worn for most of her life. She was aware of the passage of time in the way a dreamer is aware of the night slipping past without actually witnessing change to the world around them. That darkness was comfortable, almost blissful, at least in part because of its emptiness.

Too long she had carried responsibility on her shoulders, a burden that grew heavier with each passing year. It had been a relief to set it aside, to believe the world might have no more need of her abilities.

But if that had been so, she would have passed well beyond the realm of the living. She wondered now if the guardian she first encountered in the depths of the crystal felt the same when she stirred her consciousness back to life.

There was no denying the ritual, though. When the words were spoken, the power stirred. And when the power woke, she had no choice to but to answer it, to peel herself from the depths of the haven in which she passed the years, and return to the fragile form of flesh.

She couldn’t remember her body ever feeling as strange as it did now. The only comparison she could make was trying to live on a new planet. For the first several weeks, everything seemed out of place – including her. It was like a mental tingling sensation, lurking in the background of everything she said and did. Impossible to ignore, constantly demanding of some limited form of focus, though there seemed to be nothing she could do to correct the situation, except wait for it to pass.

Each night when she camped with her charge, she stared into the flames of their fire, willing the mental stuttering to cease, wondering why she couldn’t seem to feel normal. Granted normal had flown out the window for Queen Rose Drathmore the day she burned the magic in her blood to kill her greatest adversary. But if all things were relative, she should be able to achieve some semblance of balance.

Or had the passage of thousands of unnoticed years altered her more than she realized?

“They still speak of your legend, you know.” The voice of her charge was rough and husky whenever she spoke. Rose recognized the tone as one of great loss, likely forged by a permanent lump of emotion the girl couldn’t dislodge from her throat.

The girl stared into the fire when she spoke, and for several long seconds after Rose turned her eyes upon her. She lifted her gaze only when Rose did not look away. Despite the slump of her shoulders and the dark circles rimming her eyes, there was fire in her yet. Rose recognized that as well and knew exactly how dangerous it could be. No matter what happened to the youth who set across for her, that fire wouldn’t go out until its purpose was fulfilled.

Unfortunately for both of them, that also meant the fire was likely to consume its host before it was satisfied.

But how to warn her charge against it? If she was anything like Rose Drathmore when she had been young, she wasn’t likely to listen. She knew the shape of the world, or thought she did. And given what Rose knew about the situation, she might not be entirely wrong.

“Do they?” she said softly, her voice gruff from lack of use. No matter how much water she drank, she never seemed to quench the thirst of her throat. She had more than enough magic left to hold her physical form together, but not enough to keep it from feeling like dust ready to crumble into the slightest wind.

“The greatest Alphalauran queen that ever lived,” the girl replied with a smirk. “The legacy I’m supposed to live up to.” This was accompanied by a bitter laugh that stabbed straight through Rose’s soul.

“Would you believe they said the same to me?” Rose countered, her half-lidded eyes watching the flames jump and dance with each new breath of nearby air. “Except the name they spoke to me was Laura. The first queen. The one who set all this,” she motioned to the labyrinth surrounding them, “in motion.”

“Things were different then,” her charge insisted, angry as well as bitter. She bowed her head, shrouding her face in shadow. “The kingdom wasn’t in tatters, its guardians spread to the wind.”

“Things were different, yes,” Rose agreed, though her tone was equally grave. “And they were the same.”

Her charge’s head shot up and her eyes narrowed, the fire flashing behind her irises. She opened her mouth to retort, but Rose didn’t give her a chance.

“People put too much faith in bloodlines. It leads to odd expectations for blood heirs. Unreasonable expectations, if you ask me. It was the cycle I hoped to break.”

Something in her tone – or perhaps her carefully chosen words – diffused her charge’s building anger. Again, the girl snorted and tossed her head, causing her tangled mass of hair to flip back and forth across her shoulders. “Is that why you stayed?”

Rose wanted to say that she hadn’t had much choice in the matter. She was bound to the universe until she used the energy that had been granted to her. She could have rationed it differently, she supposed. Could have spent it in one last blaze of glory rather than storing it in the crystal. But that simply wasn’t how these things were done. She would have been lost without a mentor to show her a path. And besides, she had long since learned that anything which appeared to be the hand of fate was simply the end result of a long string of choices. Somewhere back in her history she had set herself on this course, so she had to see it through to the end.

“I simply wasn’t finished, I suppose,” she replied. It was the kind of cryptic thing she hated when she had been her charge’s age. But she understood now that it had nothing to do with keeping secrets; she had no actual wisdom to offer.

But just as she had when she was young, her charge scoffed, her harsh laughter quickly turning into a fit of coughing. The journey hadn’t been kind to her before she summoned her guardian back to the physical plain. And the labyrinth through which they journeyed was harsh, filled with chill, biting winds and endlessly persistent moisture. Had her body been made of anything other than magic, Rose imagined she would have ached from dawn to dusk – not that they saw either from within the stone walls of the maze they navigated.

“Is this your last duty then?” the question was spoken like an accusation. “One last great feat so that future generations never forget what you did?”

If only the child realized how deeply the spear of her words wounded her guardian. None of the things she had done had been for recognition or glory. Every single one had been done out of necessity. And few of her choices had been easy. Even the one that led her to sleep in the depths of the crystal so some poor, unfortunate scion could summon her back into being for however short a time.

Not that it mattered now. Whatever action she took here would be ascribed to her charge. No one else was likely to know they had ever communicated. And as far as Rose was concerned, it was better that way. She had tried to tell others of the guidance she received from a long dead queen, and it had all been ascribed to visions, adding a divine nature of destiny to her deeds that she had never been able to dispel.

“Could be my last duty is to guide you to the center of this labyrinth so that you can awaken your power and claim your birthright,” Rose agreed after a moment of consideration. “Or it could be that you would have found your way all on your own. You’re stronger than you believe, and smarter too. Could be there’s some other benefit you could gain by my presence, before the end, if you’re willing. Either way, the outcome will be the same. I will pass on to you what my mentor passed on to me, and what you do with it will ultimately be your choice.”

Her charge hesitated, wringing her fingers together several times before she spoke again. “You really think you won’t return from the labyrinth? That the ritual we’ve come to complete will kill you?”

This time, Rose smiled without hesitation. “I’ve been dead a long time, child. No force in the universe can change that. As to whether or not I’ll ever walk beyond these hallowed halls again…” she lifted her head and tilted it in the direction they had been walking for the last three days.

Somewhere beyond this small and easily defensible dead end, at the center of the vast and decaying tunnels they navigated, something pulsed with power. Something big. Something old. Something that had once belonged to the imperial family, though its original purpose had long since been forgotten.

The imperial family may have abandoned this once-grand palace many generations ago, but artifacts like that were rarely left unguarded. And magic without a guiding hand often took on a life of its own.

The power left to her was equal to her task. But equal to more?

She shook her head. “That depends on what waits for us at the center of this maze. When the power left to me is gone, so will I be. And if this final task demands I give all I have left, I will not hesitate to do so.”

“You aren’t afraid?” her charge insisted, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Dead or not, you’re still here. You make it sound like after we’re finished, you won’t be.”

Rose’s smile turned cold. In truth, outside of fondness for the youthful version of herself she saw in this girl, there was little left in the universe to offer her warmth. “What have I to lose? Everyone I knew or loved is long since gone. If those who live still speak of my memory, then I can rest assured I accomplished more than I ever wished.”

Silence reigned for several minutes, broken only by the soft crackle of the fire. They were lucky to find so much flammable material in a place that had once been made of metal, but there were plenty who would have feared to burn it, given the formidable presence this place had once inspired.

“How did you do it?” her charge asked at last, looking up only after the words were spoken. “Make the kinds of decisions you did, I mean. Take the kinds of actions you took.”

Rose opened her mouth to speak and stopped just short of saying, I had no choice. It wouldn’t be a helpful response, certainly, since it wasn’t exactly true. “I weighed the consequences of what would happen if I didn’t act,” she said softly instead. For it was always fear of what would happen in the absence of her actions that had kept her moving, kept her choosing even when she really didn’t want to. “The one universal truth that binds us all is that the only actions you can ever truly control are your own. You can always count on someone else to act if you do not, but you’ll never be able to predict if it their choice will be better or worse than yours. Or if it will come too soon or too late. So it’s better to act as best you can instead of leaving things to chance.”

“But how can you possibly guess the outcome before you make a choice?” her charge insisted, obviously frustrated, perhaps near to tears. “How do you weigh against consequences when all of them seem equally dire and no good option presents itself? How do you…” she swallowed hard, then forced herself to go on. “How do you live with yourself if you make the wrong choice?”

Rose closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. She hadn’t thought about such things in a long time, not since well before she had taken her leave of the universe to sleep. But such choices, such torment, had dominated her younger years enough that she had never forgotten what it felt like to be faced with an impossible task.

“You don’t,” she said softly. It was difficult to meet her charge’s gaze, to see the forlorn darkness overriding the last measure of hope in her eyes, but she forced herself to do it anyway. “You never know for sure until you see what happens. It’s impossible to avoid making mistakes. And some of them might even haunt you forever.”

“You’re not exactly inspiring confidence, here,” her charge retorted, her voice low and choked.

Rose smiled, bittersweet though the expression was. “I rarely had confidence in the choices I made. But I lived long enough to see that what I did made a difference. If you’re fortunate, it’ll be the same for you.”

“Is duty all there is then?” her charge demanded, eyes distant, words like a whiplash. “Is that all we get for facing the darkness no one else wants to deal with?”

“No,” Rose replied, shaking her head. “There are other rewards, though they’ll likely be fleeting. Duty is a geas to which we bind ourselves. And once we do, it cannot easily be escaped. But that does not make us powerless. I believed otherwise for a long time, but I don’t recommend following in those footsteps. There is madness down that path that cannot easily be dismissed.”

Her charge’s eyes were wretched when they fell on her again, practically begging her to take it all back. “But do you regret it?” she asked hoarsely. “If someone offered you a chance to do it all over again, would you take it?”

“If someone offered me a chance to go back and change the things I knew I had done wrong, yes, I would take it. But regret it? No. As I said, I’ve seen the results. The path may not always have been pleasant, and it demanded a level of diligence that few ever encounter. But it was the road I took, and I’m content with it.”

Her charge made a soft, strangled sound, then bowed her head. She may have been looking for a way to escape the duties that lay in front of her. By now, she must realize that the only option was negligence. And if she was of Rose’s blood, even remotely, then turning her back on the truth would never be an option she could accept.

They sat in silence a long time. Much of their rest stops had been like this. Eventually, the girl would sleep while Rose kept watch. Then they would move on, deeper into the tunnels, closer to the pulse that called them on.

Closer to the end for her and closer to the beginning for her charge.

“What’s your name?” she asked suddenly, shocked to realize she’d gone so long without speaking it.

Her charge chuckled as she glanced up again. “I’ve been wondering how long it would take you to ask. After all, they named me for you.”

Rose stuck out her tongue. “That’s going to make things rather confusing.”

“Not as badly as you think,” her charge insisted, laughing genuinely for the first time in their association. “They didn’t call me Rose – and I thank the goddess for that, if you’ll pardon me for saying so. No, it’s your other name they gave me. Hope.”

“Hope,” Rose breathed. Her middle name. Middle names had never been of much importance during her time, but they had been sure to mention it in every history book that followed her life, no doubt. “It has a nice ring to it, though, you have to admit.”

“I didn’t think so before,” Hope said, her tone somewhat wistful. “Now… I’m not so sure.”

“Get some rest,” Rose replied, motioning toward the packs that contained their bedrolls. “Let the future wait a little while longer, for the both of us.”

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