We had all heard the stories, of course. But as the decades passed the stories became less history and more myth.
Kishara was a high priestess of Set, whose beauty was rivaled only by her cold-hearted cruelty. In addition to her priests, acolytes, and bodyguards, she maintained a company of irregulars, soldiers known by the symbol of the black rose they wore on their lapels, to enforce her will within her demesne.
It is said that as the years passed, Kishara grew more aggressive in her aspirations for power. She became feared and reviled by the Setite hierarchy as she maneuvered for power beyond any a woman had ever held, leaving a trail of corpses in her wake. It seemed to all that she was favored by Set, her soldiers were unstoppable, her assassins struck silent and true, and it was clear to all that she was destined to rise above all others.
At the height of her power, Kishara marched her Black Roses in an open invasion of a rival’s compound, secluded at an oasis deep in the desert. Later dubbed the Rasha’al Massacre, it is told that Kishara took on the very aspect of Set, laying low all who confronted her, including High Priest Rasha’al – his corpse, bloated and blackened from her venom, cast into the well, forever despoiling the waters of the oasis. She ordered her men to slay every man, woman, and child who had survived the initial assault. The men she ordered crucified on the walls, the women and children disemboweled in the sands at their feet, left to the ministrations of the sun and the carrion birds.
There is some debate still over why the Black Rose turned against their mistress that day. Some say that, despite their brutality, Kishara’s actions crossed some moral line that they would not cross. Others believe they were paid off by members of the Setite hierarchy who sought to remove her as a threat. As for myself, I will not attempt to divine the intentions of such men. Suffice to say, the command staff of the Black Rose, led by their Captain Kironius Mengst, an Aquilonian, set upon Kishara while she reveled in her orgy of blood.
To this day, the name Mengst is synonymous with “traitor” in most Stygian circles.
The story goes, before the priestess fell under the swords of the four senior-most solders of her company, she drew down a curse upon them: that for four score years, no one who wore the rose on their lapels would find shelter or shade, nor running water. She damned them to the wastes to die.
No solider of the Black Rose ever returned from the desert.
To this day, tales are told of a tribe, wandering the deserts, lost. Mothers frighten their children with tales of how the men of the Rose will steal the young and take their water; many a caravan handler will not find sleep during their long desert crossings. But that’s what they’ve become – story…myth. Superstition.
My home sits on a small tributary of the Styx, reaching out until its waters are absorbed by the sands. Living on the very verge of the desert, we are closer than most to these old stories of phantoms. My wife has told them to my children as a warning to never stray far from the river or risk being lost to the sands.
I snatched up my old spear and ran to the water at the sound of my wife and daughter’s screams. I found them there in the cove where they bathed and laundered our clothing, clutching each other and attempting to cover their nakedness as they shrieked and pointed to the men who had come down to the water.
They were two, one in his middle years and one younger. Both with faces weathered by the sun and clothes worn by wind and sand, spears lashed to their backs and swords at their hips. They stared, but not at the nakedness of my women – they were staring at the water, their jaws slack with awe. At some point while I stood frozen in terror, my wife and daughter stopped screaming and my spear, forgotten at my side, fell to the ground.
They spoke to each other in a very strange dialect I could not understand, came to some accord, and approached. The older asked a question, but the only word I could discern was “taste”. I shrugged my shoulders helplessly. He grunted and looked back to the water, then to me and made a motion with his hands as if drinking. Finally understanding and nodding, I slowly leaned down, dipped my hand into the water and brought some to my lips to drink. The younger of the two men whistled quietly.
The older man came close and clasped my shoulders. He solemnly said something to me that I could not understand, then dipped his head and spit at my feet. He nodded to me, collected his companion, and started walking towards the West. As they moved away, dozens of figures rose from the dunes, sands streaming from their billowing clothing, and fell into file behind them, some nodding to me or whistling obscenely to the women as they passed.
Their lapels all bore the Black Rose.