Chapter 11
The Child of Light

Pendragon City, Pendragon

Eleven days had passed since Rafael first met Cassandra and her two companions and in all that time he had succeeded in learning very little about them. He had spent his entire adult life among a wide variety of suspicious characters, but none were so good at keeping silent about who they really were and what they intended to do. Cassandra was never seen without her hooded cloak, even while sleeping, and would only give vague and evasive answers to any of Rafael's questions. That was if she deigned to answer them at all.
Rafael thought the little ones would have looser lips, but Cassandra never seemed to be far away whenever they were about to slip. Even though he was not the sort who liked to talk about himself, he tried dropping some details about himself as bait. He started with lies, but Cassandra saw through them effortlessly, forcing him to tell the truth. He did not tell too much and it was just as well as it did not get him anywhere.
Just who was Cassandra? She was obviously a woman of good breeding, but what was she doing traveling alone? What was the source of her strange powers? And what were Sammy and Tammy? Were they just common dwarfs or were they something else? He remembered the stories from his adoptive mother when he was a child, of the little people of the hills, the child folk, the Barnlings. Was that why they were so secretive?
Eleven days of every trick he knew to get people to talk--short of holding them down and pulling fingernails--with nothing to show for it. Three days out in the open where anything could happen, four days skirting along the edge of the forest with the very real risk of a Goblin attack, two days up the winding way to the top of the plateau the Norlanders called the Giant's Table, and another two days through the suburbs to the gate of the High City proper. After all of this Rafael was not a single step closer to sating his curiosity.
As they approached the gate, Cassandra said, apparently for the benefit of the little ones, "Well, here we are. The High City."
For Rafael, this was far from his first time in the city. The most people and the most wealth was concentrated here, so for a treasure hunter who often had to resort to thievery for his daily bread, it was one of the best places to be. From time to time the keepers of the peace would launch a more zealous effort than usual to root out crime in the city and those were the times Rafael made a point to be somewhere else.
It was about noon and except in times of danger, the gate would remain open for travelers, traders and anyone else from sunrise to sunset. There was no toll to enter and oftentimes you would not even see any guards manning the gate. It was ideal for people who did not want to draw too much attention to themselves. Besides Cassandra and the little ones with their secrecy, Rafael was none too eager to risk being recognized by some watchman he had evaded in the past.
There were any number of places Rafael would think to go in the city and no few he might imagine Cassandra meant to visit, but where she ultimately led their group was the last place he would have thought: the great church Lux Mundi. It was originally a temple dedicated to the sun god Apollo, the patron deity of the city, but when then Pendragons came, it was converted to a church in the fashion of their lands. The statues were brought down and smashed, the burnt offerings and auguries were done away with and the oracles were driven out. All this had happened years before the first time Rafael ever came to the city, but he heard the stories. For most of the people in the city, one god was as good as another, so little changed, but there were rumors of those who still worshipped the sun god in secret for whatever good it did them. No god ever seemed to be of much use to Rafael, though he did have a rather contentious relationship with the goddess of luck. At times she favored him and at times she did not, but he had yet to find a way to make her a reliable ally.
It was ironic that it was the sun's day when the new faith did their main weekly worship. Perhaps the new god was a rival sun god. There was only one sun, so it must not have been enough for two gods to rule. Of course, the Norlanders had all their gods, the people of the High City had a completely different set, and then the Pendragons come with just one to wipe out all the rest. None of it made a whole lot of sense to Rafael.
"You are named after one of the Seven Archangels who serve the one God of the Pendragons and yet you marvel at the clash of gods for Man's soul," Cassandra mused.
"An' how'dya figure that?" Rafael asked her.
This was not the first time Cassandra seemed to read his mind and he was quite convinced that she did indeed possess such a power, but she would never admit to it and this time was no exception.
"I could read it plain as day on your face," she replied. "One look is all it takes."
There were many things he might be inclined to believe in this world, but that claim was not one of them. Cassandra held up a hand to stifle a slight girlish giggle, as if she read that thought as well.
"What're we doin' here anyway?" he asked.
"There is something I must do."
"That's doesn't really tell me anything."
"Perhaps that is entirely according to design," Cassandra replied with a hint of a smile.
She was such a tease. That and all the mystery about her drew Rafael like a fly to honey. Her great beauty from what he had seen also played a part in it. Of course, there were many pretty faces out there. It took something more to make a woman irresistible.
"You may wish to wait outside, Rafael," Cassandra said. "I am not certain you have the appropriate state of mind to enter."
There she went again.
"An' I've heard these people'll'd burn someone like you as a witch, damn waste it'd be."
"If you must accompany us, do please hold your tongue in there," she said.
"I won't speak unless spoken to if that's what ya want."
"Even then it may be best if you say nothing."
She was only half-joking. Rafael may not have been blessed with any mystic powers, but he could tell the real concern in her voice, even if she did not mean to make it too obvious. Whatever her business was, it was delicate stuff and no trifling matter.
When they passed through the door, they were met by two church knights--Templars, they called themselves if Rafael remembered correctly--, each with a squire at his side.
"The house of God will not be profaned," the Templar on the right said.
Before Rafael could ask what that was supposed to mean, the Templar on the right clarified, saying, "You must leave your weapons here."
To both Rafael and the little ones, Cassandra said, "Do as he says or you may wait outside until my business is concluded."
"We wanna go with you, Cassy," the girl Tammy said.
"Then hand over your weapons," Cassandra replied. "They will be returned when we leave."
The Templar on the left nodded to confirm what Cassandra said. Tammy handed over her bow and quiver and a little stone dagger to the squire on the left, who laid them down by the wall. Sammy then followed with his shortsword and dagger.
"Well, Rafael?" Cassandra asked.
Rafael never went anywhere without some kind of weapon, but his curiosity got the better of him. He drew his dirk and offered it to the squire, then unslung the brace of throwing knives.
"And the needles in your glove," Cassandra said.
Rafael thought no one had noticed, but he kept three thin iron spikes in the back of his glove. Reluctantly, he drew them out and handed them over as well
"The knife in your pack."
Rafael sighed and opened up the pack on his hip, digging around for the knife he had secreted away among his tools of the trade and sundries. This was not the end of it, though.
"And the blades sewn into your tunic."
At his sides, he cut slits just big enough for his hands to reach in. There he had two little knives, which he had to relinquish. The two Templars had regarded him suspiciously before and now they looked at him in a mix of disbelief and disgust.
"Is that all?" the Templar on the left asked.
Cassandra gave him a look.
Rafael sighed again and reached into his trousers to remove his last hidden knife. The squire held it like it was a dead rat as he placed it among all the other weapons.
"God preserve me if he has anything else," the Templar on the left muttered under his breath.
Rafael held up his hands and said, "That's it."
"Very well then," the Templar on the right said gruffly. "Enter."
Cassandra nodded to the two Templars and continued on in with the little ones and Rafael following after her. Inside were two columns of wooden benches with a scattered handful of people sitting or kneeling, presumably in prayer.
In a low voice, Cassandra gestured to the column on her left, saying, "Rafael, Samhain, you sit here." Then to Tammy she said, "Tamarin, with me."
"Why can't we sit together?" Sammy asked in a normal speaking voice, which had much the same effect of yelling in the largely silent church.
The disturbance drew a few looks, but Cassandra gently shushed him and explained, "It is the custom. Now go sit quietly."
Rafael and Sammy took their seats on one side while Cassandra and Tammy sat on the other. Rafael watched Cassandra fold her hands in the style of others who were praying. Tammy mimicked her and Sammy also followed in suit, but Rafael did not see much use in it. Instead he looked around the church, his eyes often going back to steal a glimpse at Cassandra. There was not much of interest to see besides her. It was apparently quite a different place back when it was dedicated to Apollo. Now it seemed almost like a tomb.
Then he noticed it. It was subtle and brief, but Cassandra seemed to glow. Just as it caught his eye, the light faded, but after a time, it happened again. Was it nothing more than a trick of the light seeping in through the narrow windows or the flickering tapers along the wall? No, he was sure of what he saw.
He wondered if anyone else noticed it when a priest dressed in white approached her and bowed.
"Come with me, my lady," he said.
Cassandra rose from her seat, glancing to her left and her right, and said, "Permit them, if you would. They have my confidence."
The priest bowed his head deferentially and replied, "In that case, my lady, they shall have ours as well."
Taking that as their cue, Rafael and the little ones stood up and followed behind Cassandra as the priest led them down the aisle and across to a stairwell leading down into the cellar. The priest took a candle out of a nearby sconce and put it in a bronze candle holder, then went to the back wall and rested his hand on it. The wall yielded to his touch to reveal a hidden passage. He stayed behind as Cassandra and the others entered the passageway in order to close the false wall behind them.
"Pardon me," the priest said as he squeezed his way ahead of the to lead them further along.
The passageway proved to be a short maze with a number of branches that inevitably led to nowhere, but the priest was able to navigate without any sort of mark Rafael could see that would distinguish one path from another. At the end of this maze, the passageway opened up to a large chamber. In an alcove covered in gold leaf and surrounded by many candles was a polished bronze statue of a slender nude youth whose hair was molded in gold. Tammy gasped, which made Rafael chuckle, but both of them got a severe look from Cassandra.
The priest seemed to pay them no mind, though, bowing low to the statue, then turning to Cassandra and pulling out a gold emblem from under his robes.
"The old ways are not changed so easily," he said.
"Aren't ya worried the Pendragons'll find out 'bout all this?" Rafael asked.
"Not so long as those who come here keep the faith," the priest replied. He looked about the chamber and chuckled to himself. "Strange that we find ourselves worshipping the sun god here in the bowels of the earth."
"She is here, is she not?" Cassandra asked.
"Yes, my lady," the priest said. "We must go a little farther yet to the catacombs."
He then led them around out of the chamber into another passageway. This one was not labyrinthine in design, but there were several offshoots along the way and from each of these offshoots a faint but stinging odor wafted through the air.
"What's that smell?" Sammy asked, holding his nose.
"That is the holy incense that gives the oracles the sun god's revelations," the priest said. "When you enter the oracle's chamber to seek your revelation, you may find yourself overpowered and and receive visions of your own."
As they went on further, the faint scent of incense was replaced by the thick, musty stench of death and decay. The little ones gagged and coughed and covered their faces with their sleeves. For Rafael, he was not above grave robbing and so the smell of centuries-old bones mouldering underground was not new to him.
There were three shelves carved into the rock on either side, all filled with bones of long-dead citizens of the High City. They said all were equal in death. Only the old kings were shown any special consideration, with special chambers carved out for them, their immediate family and any select few chosen for the particular honor of joining the king for all eternity.
It was in one such chamber that they found themselves. However, instead of being in a sarcophagus, the body rested upon it, a woman judging from the contours of the burial shroud.
"I knew this day would come," the priest said. "I serve the sun god as my father before me. He told me what had happened and that one day a new Child of Light would appear. Oh, would that he had lived to see this day."
Cassandra said nothing and approached the sarcophagus. Reaching out with hesitant hands, she took hold of the shroud and pulled it back. The woman's body was draped in a heavy garment that seemed to be woven out of pure gold and on her face was a golden mask. Cassandra removed the mask and Rafael was stunned by what he saw. The priest spoke of it as having happened during his father's time, but the woman looked as though she had only died yesterday. Her otherwise beautiful face was marred by cuts and bruises that still seemed fresh, but that was not the only thing strange about her. The woman's ears were not those of a human but rather long and pointed.
"An Alf..." Rafael said under his breath.
"I prefer the way the Pendragons pronounce it," Cassandra said. "Elf... It sounds more delicate."
Cassandra pulled back her hood to reveal the same Alf ears.
"You're an Alf too?"
All this time and he never realized it. He knew there was something unusual about her, but he always thought the Alfar were nothing but myths.
The priest fell to his knees, prostrating himself before Cassandra.
"Forgive us, my lady," he said. "The people of this city forgot the Child of Light. They let their fear and their ignorance overtake their senses and did a great evil. Forgive us, I beg you."
"If there was any guilt in your people, you paid it in full when the Pendragons came," Cassandra told him. "She did not die hating you. She forgave you in her heart and so do I."
"Who is she?" Rafael asked.
Cassandra looked to him. Though she maintained her composure, Rafael saw that her eyes were moist with tears. By the light of the priest's candle, they seemed to sparkle like gems.
"She is my mother," Cassandra said. "She was raised by humans, some four hundred years ago. Here, in this city. The natural powers of my people were seen as miracles and so she was made a priestess of the sun. She was one of the companions of the hero Sigurd, the very one whose relics you seek to loot. She aided him in his quest to vanquish Fafnir the King of Hoards and when that quest had ended, she sought out her own people.
"Though she was of their seed, they distrusted her because of her peculiar upbringing. Eventually they accepted her into El-Simil and in time she wedded and bore a daughter: me. She never forgot the High City, though, and a part of her always longed to return.
"One day she set out to make the journey and I never saw her again until this day. Even though I feared the worst, I set out myself to find what had become of her. I was beset by Goblins along the way when a young Seth Pendragon saved me. Our fates were intertwined after that, and I was no longer free to do as I would, but I never forgot about my mother.
"When King Lother died, I gained a measure of liberty, but I could never go far from King Seth's side. I paid men to investigate the matter further and that led me here. After all these years, we are reunited at last."
"Why does she look like she just died?" Rafael asked. "It's been years, hasn't it?"
"Forty-eight years," Cassandra said. "Normally, when we die, our bodies are taken by El-Naia's Gift. El-Naia is the great goddess, the mother of our people. Though she made us mortal, she would not see her children dishonored in death. When we die, our bodies are consumed and return to the æther unless there is some strong attachment to this world. It is said that their spirits remained chained to the flesh, never to find release to join our ancestors in the company of the gods."
She unhooked her cloak and let it fall to the floor. She was wearing a tunic in the fashion of the High City, trimmed with golden embroidery and held together with golden pins. She ungirded the tunic and removed the pins, letting it fall off of her along with the cloak, leaving her wearing only the inner tunic.
"What are you doing?" Rafael asked, wondering if she intended to take off all of her clothes right there in front of everyone.
"I am going to try to help my mother find peace," Cassandra replied. "I would ask that you show some restraint."
If there had been any doubt before, now Rafael was certain she could read his mind. It was less of a surprise now that she was revealed to be an Alf. If even half of the stories about her kind were true, it would be more of a wonder if she did not have these strange powers and more.
Cassandra climbed up on the sarcophagus and laid herself alongside her mother's body. She held her mother's hands, which crossed over her heart, and began whispering something in a voice so low Rafael could not make out what she was saying. Cassandra's skin began to glow, dimly at first but steadily brighter and brighter. The light seemed to bleed into her mother and eventually became so bright that Rafael had to avert his eyes. When the light died down, nothing remained of Cassandra's mother but empty clothes.
Cassandra rose up from the sarcophagus, placed the golden mask where mother's head once was and then covered it all once more with the burial shroud.
The priest, still on his knees, looked on with tears in his eyes.
"A miracle, a miracle..." he murmured to himself.
Cassandra said nothing, quietly donning her outer tunic, pinning it in place and binding her girdle, then putting on her cloak and covering her head with the hood once more. Once that was done, she walked over to the priest and gently rested a hand on his shoulder.
"Thank you," she whispered.
She then walked off, leaving Rafael and the little ones to follow her confusedly. When they left the limited reach of the light of the priest's candle, Cassandra held up her hand and summoned a small orb of bluish light to shine in the darkness.
"Where're ya goin'?" Rafael asked.
"My business is done here," Cassandra replied. "I can guide us out if you have forgotten, though I am sure you could manage if you are half the treasure hunter you claim."
"I'm twice the treasure hunter I claim," Rafael boasted, partially in jest, "but what 'bout him?"
Rafael glanced back behind him, but there was no sign the priest had moved from where they left him.
"He has waited his entire life for this moment," Cassandra said. "He needs time, but I cannot wait for him. We will find lodgings for the evening and be on our way at daybreak."
"So soon?"
"As I said, my business here is done."
Again with the vaguery and evasion. What was she really up to? If she could read his mind, there was no way he could trick it out of her, but she would not tell him if he asked her directly, would she?
"Uh, Cassandra..."
"Yes, Rafael?"
"I, ah, I'm glad ya got ta settle things with your mom, but that isn't what you're here for, is it?"
Still looking straight ahead, neither slowing nor quickening her pace, Cassandra replied, "If by 'here' you mean this city, yes, it is exactly the reason I have come. If, however, you are speaking of 'here' in the larger sense, it does not matter."
"Well, whaddya mean?"
"I mean that there is no treasure where I am going. Mere curiosity and infatuation is not reason enough to follow me."
"Infa--, uh!" Rafael sputtered. "Who's infatuated!?"
"You been followin' Cassy 'round like a puppy ever since she saved you," Sammy said.
"The only thing you haven't tried is singin' songs an' readin' poetry," Tammy added.
"That's enough outta you two," Rafael said. "Have some respect for the dead, dammit." He started walking faster to close the distance between him and Cassandra and told her, "Ya coulda run me off with your Alf magic a long time ago. You wouldna kept me 'round this long 'less ya had a reason to. Now, I got a right ta see this through ta the end an' if nothin' else, I still owe ya for savin' my hide. I at least gotta stick 'round till I square things with ya."
Cassandra sighed.
"Nothing I say or do short of burning your mind to a cinder will move you, will it?"
"I'd rather it didn't come ta that."
"It may prove to be a mercy by comparison," Cassandra said gravely. She stopped and turned to face him so that there would be no doubting her sincerity. "Death and worse await me where I go. Will you still follow?"
"Death an' worse've been at my heels a long time now," Rafael replied. "Jus' look at what I've been doin' with my life an' tell me I'm makin' a mistake."
"You are making a mistake," she said bluntly. "But it is yours to make, I suppose."
She turned again and resumed walking.
"So you're fine with me goin' 'long after all?" Rafael asked.
"A gennleman don't make a lady say it twice, dummy," Tammy said.
"Raffy ain't exactly a gennleman now, is he?" Sammy replied.
"What do you know 'bout bein' a gennleman?" Tammy shot back.
"That is quite enough, the three of you," Casandra said. "The dead are jealous of the living and we have disturbed those resting here enough for one day."
Rafael and the little ones quieted down after that. Until they returned aboveground, the self-proclaimed treasure hunter was left to wonder at all that had happened and all that lay on the horizon.