Prologue: The Ashes of Roses
Papa! Mama!" a young girl, no more than nine, cried out in despair. Her face, streaked with tears and dirt, contorted with frustration as she squinted through the smoke that filled the room. She stumbled forward, treading on the tatters of her elegant gown, and tried to ignore the pain of the bleeding gash on her forehead. "Where are you? Papa? Mama! Help me!"
A wall of fire flared up in front of her, and she drew back from the searing heat. Through the flames, she could vaguely make out the outline of two bodies lying on the ground. She faltered, suddenly feeling that she didn't want to see their faces.
From above, a menacing laugh rang out. She looked up and saw a figure dressed in billowing white robes hovering above the carnage. The choking black smoke served only to make him more brilliant by contrast. He was beautiful, but his beauty was horrifying, the magnificence of a fallen angel. His eyes were the worst. Indeed, he seemed to have no eyes at all; only blinding, cruel light spilled forth from where they should have been. They narrowed at her in a cold sneer as he gathered a ball of white fire in his hands. She could only watch, transfixed, as he readied the final blow.
"Nooo!" she screamed at the last second. "I don't want to die!"
Suddenly another light, equal in brilliance, sprang up from the rubble. The white-robed man recoiled in shock. With a tremendous blast, the flames were driven back, and a crystal flower appeared. The light that surrounded it was warm and gentle. It seemed to pulse along with her own heartbeat as it settled into her small palms.
A sudden, glorious rage filled her and she rose to her feet, standing tall. She looked straight into his hollow eyes without flinching, and pointed an accusing finger at him.
"You! Don't think you can just do as you please to our kingdom! A tyrant like you must be punished! I am Princess Rose! With the power of this crystal, I will make you pay for what you have done!"
Her tirade was simplistic at best, but her voice was strong and regal. And the power that exploded from the crystal in her hands was real enough. The light surged forward in a single brilliant beam, streaking toward her opponent. But to her surprise, a bright golden aura surrounded him, and an equally strong ray of light smashed into hers. It was then she saw the pendant that hung around his neck, a delicate flower of gold-tinted glass.
Rose felt her power draining away, but she forced herself to channel more. She would defeat him.
"Rose," the man muttered. "So they named you Rose after all..."
They kept struggling, deadlocked, until exhaustion began to wear the young girl down. She gritted her teeth, tears streaming down her dirt-smudged face. "N-no..." she gasped. "I won't lose! I can't lo- aah!"
Her words became a cry of despair as her strength gave out. The light of her crystal flickered and died, and moments later, the golden beam smashed into her chest. Rose screamed as agony tore through her small body. Golden light was pouring into her eyes, filling her mind and dissolving her soul. She writhed in terror and pain, but there was nothing she could do as the sorcerer's power ripped her apart.
Abruptly, the pain stopped, and Rose fell to the ground. For a moment, she could only lie there trembling. When she managed to open her eyes again, she saw the dim outline of a tall, dark-haired woman standing between her and the man. The woman was holding out her hand in a commanding gesture, and a pulsing wall of shadow was driving back the onslaught of golden energy.
The man drew back, startled at her sudden appearance. "You..." he breathed, staring at the stranger.
The woman did not acknowledge him, but knelt at the princess' side with a gentle, pitying smile.
"Are you all right?" she asked in a smooth, velvety voice.
Rose sat up shakily, pain still lingering in her limbs. "Yes, thank you..." she quavered. She looked up and saw her rescuer's face for the first time. The woman looked beautiful and noble, about the same age as her mother, Rose thought. Her eyes were the color of fine silver, and shone in the dark like those of a cat. Rose could see her own face reflected in them, and she realized for the first time how disheveled she looked.
Suddenly she realized that the man had summoned another fireball, and she cried out in fear. The dark-haired woman didn't even turn around, but calmly held up a hand and whispered something. A shadowy dome formed around them, deflecting the attack.
"Who are you?" Rose asked, a little frightened at the woman's power.
"My name is Erebus," the woman replied. "Now, Rose! We have to defeat this wicked man! I need your help."
"Me!" Rose asked incredulously. "I can't beat him! He overpowered me so easily! If you hadn't been here-"
"Shh." Erebus put a finger to her lips in a hushing gesture. "You can do it, Rose. That crystal you have has a wonderful power, if you learn to use it. You can do anything you want."
The princess hesitated, realizing that it was odd that the woman seemed to know her name. That, and the way she had suddenly appeared, seemed a little suspicious. But Erebus had helped her, and she seemed nice enough.
"Believe in yourself, Rose," Erebus urged. "You can still save your kingdom!"
"Will you help me?" the girl asked.
Rose stood, holding her crystal high. The pendant at the man's neck glowed, and another golden beam shot toward her. Again, their magic collided, and the little girl staggered, feeling light-headed. But Erebus caught her and placed her hands on Rose's shoulders. Her touch was cool and soothing, and Rose felt her strength returning. She felt a prickling on her skin and realized that her own hands were now surrounded by a shadowy aura. But she ignored it and willed the crystal to give her more power.
The beam tore through the man's attack and struck him in the chest. He screamed in pain, and she smiled with grim satisfaction.
How do you like it? she thought.
"Yes," the woman crooned in her ear. "Use all of your emotion. That crystal responds to your heart. Hate him, and change it into strength!"
A raw scream tore from her throat, and the crystal responded with a surge of power that made even the brilliance of the sorcerer's magic seem dim and feeble. The light grew stronger and stronger until she could no longer see. From a distance, she heard his final tortured scream. It made her skin crawl, but she savored it.
When the light faded, the white-robed sorcerer was gone, and a few feathers settled on top of the smoking rubble. The air began to clear as a cold wind picked up. Rose leaned against Erebus' shoulder, exhausted.
After a moment, she stood and made her way across the room. Her eyes were fixed on something small and pale that stuck out from a nearby pile of twisted metal. As her vision cleared, she could see that it was a woman's slender hand. She wanted to look away, but her feet carried her closer. Now she could see another hand, a man's, and the edge of a tattered violet sleeve.
Rose stopped and knelt down, tugging at the man's hand. It was cold. She crawled over to the other, placing it against her cheek. Something hard brushed her face. She looked, already knowing what she would see. It was her mother's wedding ring.
"Nooooooo! Papa! Mamaaaaaaaa!"
She kept screaming, tugging at the stiff arm as if she could will life back into it. When she could no longer bear to look at it, she staggered to her feet. Choking on her sobs, she turned and ran a few steps, then collapsed in a miserable heap. Erebus stood beside her, watching silently.
"Erebus!" Rose cried suddenly, glaring angrily at the woman. "You promised! You said I'd be able to save them!" She lunged forward and shoved Erebus as hard as she was able. Erebus allowed herself to be pushed back, and continued to look at her sympathetically. Rose tried to shove her again but instead collapsed into her arms, and her words dissolved into incomprehensible sobs.
"There, there," Erebus murmured, stroking the young princess' hair. "You needn't cry. I can fix all of this."
"You can?" Rose asked in a tiny voice.
"Yes. I can make it so that all of these horrible things never happened..."
"Do it, Erebus! Bring Mama and Papa back!"
"I will," Erebus reassured her. "But first, I need two things."
"What?" Rose demanded. "I'll give them to you! Anything!"
"Well, first of all I'll need to borrow the power of that crystal you have. And next, I will need the power of the Golden Crystal."
"The Golden Crystal?" Rose repeated. "What's that? How do we get it?"
"We have to travel far away from here, across space and time," Erebus said slowly, trying not to scare her.
"I don't want to go anywhere!" Rose whimpered. "I want my parents back! I want it to go back to how it was!"
The woman laid a stern hand on her shoulder. "In due time. I can make it all come back, if you like. But in order to do that, I need you to help me."
The young girl started to sob again, and Erebus sighed impatiently.
"Look around yourself, child. Where else will you go?"
Rose dried her eyes and looked up. They were standing in what had been her mother's prized rose garden. The force of the blast had leveled the nearest beds, and now the fire had begun to eat away at the rest. She watched, strangely fascinated, as the flames wrapped around a young bud. It shriveled and darkened, turning black, then was consumed in bright glow, and finally began to flake off in small gray flecks that drifted away in the shimmering air. All around was nothing but the scent of burning flowers, and the ashes of roses.
She reached out and took Erebus' hand. "Let's go."
Erebus smiled, a syrupy, knowing smile. "Excellent."