Chapter 36
The City of the Dead

Necropolis, Campus Caedis

The Necropolis truly was the City of the Dead. It was built in the old Grecian style as the High City and the Blue Haven, but there was no life to it at all. It was a barren ruin and yet not entirely uninhabited. The dead milled about listlessly, dry bones held together by the power of the curse that blighted the land, a pale shadow and a mockery of the world of the living. This was the domain of the Lord of Shadow.
Cassandra's chances of victory were low enough as it was. She could not use the same trick that she used when they crossed the Campus Caedis the first time. She needed to conserve her power. She was able to devise an alternative if distasteful solution. There was no help to be found among the living in the Blue Haven, so she turned to the dead. Entering the city's catacombs, she and her companions took tattered graveclothes and burial shrouds to cover themselves. In both the natural and supernatural sense, these were brimming with the stench of death, enough to mask their presence with a minimal use of Cassandra's power. She did not like desecrating the dead, but those sleeping in the catacombs would be subjected to worse if the Lord of Shadow was triumphant. She handled the remains as delicately as possible and prayed that the spirits would not be angered with her.
They made camp a short distance from the city. They needed some rest before they entered. Unlike humans, Elves could go many days without sleep with little ill effect, especially if they would put themselves in a trance state between waking and sleeping that allowed the body and mind to recover somewhat, though not as much as proper slumber. Before that, though, they prepared a meal. There was not much left of their provisions. They only brought enough for a one-way trip. It was pretty well understood how this would end even in the best possible case. If they were able to defeat the Lord of Shadow and somehow live to tell the tale, Cassandra would think of something then. She had little reason to be optimistic, though.
She looked up at the sky. Unnatural clouds hung in the air. She would not be able to draw power from the sun. That left only one alternative, but would it be enough?
Rafael took the half loaf of stale bread, broke it into pieces and divided it among their four dishes. He then soaked the bread in wine so that they would not break their teeth on it, took a swig for himself and then offered the wineskin around. There were two small dried fish as well that he split among them.
"Our las' supper," he said. "Kinda wish it'd leas' be warm."
"I am sorry, Rafael, but you now we cannot afford a fire, especially not this close," Cassandra said.
"Yeah, I know."
"What I'd give fer a nice squirrel stew," Sammy said, "loaded with carrots an' turnips."
"Wheat cakes fresh from the oven an' drizzled in honey," Tammy added.
"Aw, c'mon, stop," Rafael said. "You'll jus' make this taste even worse."
"I am so sorry," Cassandra said. "I never meant to drag you into this."
"Now don't start that again, Cassandra," Rafael told her. "We're here 'cause we chose ta be here. We'd all be dead if it weren't for you, so pretty much our lives are yours."
"Whatever you would have faced may have been better than what is coming."
"We got all 'ternity for regrets. Let's not worry 'bout that now."
He paused. Of course this would come to mind now.
"So, seein' as how this is prolly our las' day on the earth, ya think you'll tell me what it is ya saw back then?"
He removed his glove and held up his four-fingered hand.
"What is it ya saw 'bout my past?"
"Nothing good will come of knowing," Cassandra said.
"I'm 'bout ta die anyway," Rafael replied. "What's the harm? Leas' I won't die not knowin'."
Cassandra sighed.
"Very well. I suppose it is the least I can do."
Reluctantly, she clasped his hand in her own to see the vision afresh, narrating what she saw as it appeared to her.
"You are just a baby, held in your mother's arms. You are fleeing in the snow, led by a man, your father, I believe. Other men appear, dressed in white, their faces hidden. Your father tries to fight them off, but he is overwhelmed. Your mother turns, to shield you, I think, but she is gravely wounded. There is a wave of fire, your mother's power. Scorched earth, scorched bodies, but one of the men is still standing. Your mother tries to run, but she does not get far. She falls. You watch the light fade from her eyes. And then the man is standing over you.
"He takes your mother's hand... He... he cuts off her finger. He takes your hand next... He does the same. His eyes... His eyes..."
Even as she was nearly overwhelmed by the vision, Cassandra fought to keep from saying what she saw. The man's eyes were the same as Rafael's, the same as his father's. It was too cruel.
The vision continued.
"You are crying... Of course you are crying... The man leaves you and goes to your father. He cuts off his finger, too. A complete set to show the job has been done... Only he does not deal the deathblow...
"After he is gone, your father stirs. Bleeding from many wounds, he drags himself to you and your mother. He sees that she is gone. He weeps for her. His sorrow is great... And then... cold... death..."
"He died? Then how'd I--"
"Not death of the body... Death of the spirit... There is darkness within him, sleeping... When his heart breaks, it wells up, consumes him... His heart becomes cold... So cold... Colder than the snow... Colder than the dead hands of your mother..."
"Okay, Cassandra, that's enough. You don't--"
By this point, the vision had taken over. The flood of emotions was too much for her. Cassandra felt all the pain and sorrow and intensely as if it were her own. Tears were streaming down her face, her heart was like a leaden weight, but now that she had awakened the sleeping memories, they demanded to be revealed in full. Of its own accord, her hand reached out and touched Rafael's ear, prompting the next vision.
"Your ears are clipped to hide your Elven heritage. Your father has no stirring of pity for you as he does it. Indeed, his heart is like the Void itself. He tends the wounds with care, but he may as well be a creature of stone.
"He has traveled far. He comes to a small village. He waits. He sees a woman burying her child. He offers her a replacement. She is afraid of him, but in her grief, she is desperate for something to fill the hole in her heart. She accepts. Your father vanishes. You never see him again..."
The vision started to slip away and only then did Cassandra realize that Rafael had taken hold of her wrist to pull her hand away. Without the direct contact of skin to skin, the bond was much weaker and the vision could no longer control her.
"That's enough," Rafael said softly.
"I am sorry," Cassandra replied. "I--"
"Don't be. I'm glad ya tole me. Now I can die knowin' a bit 'bout who I am, what I am..."
Letting go of her wrist, Rafael stood up and asked her, "You ready ta get this over with?"
Cassandra wiped away her tears, then stood up herself.
"I suppose there is noting to be gained by putting it off any longer. Samhain, Tamarin, are you ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," Sammy replied.
"One way or another, it ends here, right, Cassy?" Tammy added.
"One way or another..." Cassandra mused. "Yes, indeed so. Shall we be going then?"
It did not take them long to enter the city. Fortunately, it did not seem like there were guards of any sort. The dead roaming the streets paid them no heed, if they were even capable of noticing anything. Frightened by the ghastly spectacle all around them, the Barnlings clung close to Cassandra and even Rafael seemed unnerved at the sight of so many of the walking dead so close to them.
Though it probably would have been best to say nothing lest they draw unwanted attention to themselves, Rafael eventually asked her in a low voice, "Where's this Lord a' Shadow?"
The sound of his voice did not elicit any response from the listless city-dwellers, so Cassandra felt it was safe enough to reply, though she did not speak much above a whisper just to be safe.
"He is not hiding," she said. "He does not seem to be exerting his full power, but his presence is unmistakable."
"We never did go over the plan."
"There is not much of a plan to speak of. I simply need to get as close as I can and strike with everything I have. If Fortune favors us, it will be enough."
"An' if not?"
"Then we will have given our lives in vain, though perhaps the blow we strike will create a vulnerability to be exploited by someone who comes after us."
"That isn't much comfort."
"This is not a place of comfort, Rafael."
Cassandra could sense both the Barnlings were regretting their decision to come along but neither were willing to give voice to the sentiment. She should have tried harder to find a place of refuge for them, but in all truth she knew they had no place once they were exiled from their home. Of course, she bore a measure of blame for that as well.
"What's this?" a raspy voice said in the old tongue of the Greeks. "Newcomers? Here?"
Cassandra turned to see the withered corpse of an old man in a threadbare robe with skin like parchment stretched over his bones and a sparse beard of brittle white whiskers. With his empty eye sockets, it was not clear how he noticed them.
"Can't remember the last time we had newcomers..." the old man said. "Oh, yes, that woman and the new King. When was that...?"
Perhaps it would have been best to move on, but Rafael approached the old man, speaking a different but similar strain of the Greek tongue, and asked him, "What woman? What King?"
The old man cocked his head.
"You don't know? Why, can't say when it was. Don't know days or seasons anymore. A woman came here... A living woman with a babe in her arms, the new King to whom every knee must bend."
It had to be the Lord of Shadow, but who could this woman be? What living creature could survive in such a place?
Before anyone could ask, another dead man sprang from the shadows, far more nimbly than the walking dead should. Like the old man, he was more than just bare bones, but because of his more active movements, there were holes where his leathery skin had torn open. He was clad only in a tattered chlamys, but his body was too withered away to show anything too upsetting to modesty.
"Why speaks old fool?" he asked in a shrill voice.
Annoyed, the old man replied, "There is only one fool here."
"No, many fools," the clown said. "I fool, you fool. All fools."
The clown's neck creaked as he turned his head to Cassandra and the others.
"Who these fools?" he asked.
"Newcomers," the old man said.
"Newcomers? No newcomers here. Dead stay in field."
Taking the opportunity to run away would only expose them, not that they had the chance before the clown bounded mere inches from where Cassandra stood. He tilted his head and drew in a long breath through the cavernous holes where his nose once was.
"Not dead," he said. His voice then rose to high screech. "Not dead! NOT DEAD!"
Throwing his head back, splitting open the skin of his neck in the process, he screamed even louder, "NOT DEAD! INTERLOPER!"
The other dead nearby, who had ignored them until now, turned their heads to Cassandra and her companions. This was bad. Very bad.
Rafael took hold of Cassandra's arm.
"Come on!"
So much for subtlety. With a careful eye on the Barnlings to ensure they did not fall behind, Cassandra followed Rafael's lead. If anyone knew how to escape a bad situation, it was him.
The clown did not let them go so easily, though, screaming and screeching as he clumsily pursued them, drawing the attention of more and more of the city-dwellers. They did not run after them as he did, but they followed all the same. It was not long before the dead were all around them, scores of them--no, hundreds.
"Cassy..." Sammy quailed.
Rafael drew his knives, but what did he expect to do against the walking dead with mere knives?
Cassandra was trying to save her power, but with the dead closing in on them, she had to do something. But before she could cast a spell, the dead were abruptly silenced and withdrew. Her eyes were drawn to a lone figure shrouded all in black. From the figure a woman's voice spoke.
"I would not have believed it if I did not see it with my own eyes. That any mortal would be fool enough to come here..."
Heedless to the retreat of the other dead, the clown bounded in, still screeching, "NOT DEAD! INTERLOPER! INTERLOPER!"
The figure in black stretched out her hand as the clown ran up to her, blasting him apart with a wave of powerful magic.
As the pieces of the clown clattered on the cobblestones, the figure in black's hands reached up to pull back her veil, revealing an Inguri woman with skin the color of slate and the telltale red eyes of her race.
"An Elf," Rafael said.
"The Dark Tribe," Sammy whispered, recalling Cassandra's story.
The Inguri woman's lips twisted into the faintest hint of a grin.
"Telling these creatures your Alari tales, have you?" she said in Southern-accented Elvish. She closed her eyes and Cassandra could feel her peering into her mind. "Interesting... You are not like most Alari. No wonder they reject you."
She did not try to delve deeply, but there was more than enough to be gleaned from the surface. Cassandra would have resisted if she tried to go any further, but for now it seemed prudent not to reveal any more of her power than was necessary.
"And you reject all that lives and breathes," Cassandra said.
"Death comes for us all, child," the Inguri woman replied. "I simply serve the pact that brought my tribe into being. When standing in the face of inevitability, Hazil the Wise knew what had to be done. In their ignorance, your tribe has never forgiven him for that, nor any other Inguri."
"You betrayed our people!"
Though Cassandra momentarily lost control of her emotions, the Inguri woman was unswayed.
"We did what we had to do. You Alari are no different. You too split our people, only you did it for vanity. We yielded to the power greater than ourselves. You in your arrogance thought you could overcome Death itself. Poor fools."
"We have come to put an end to the Lord of Shadow."
"You will fail," the Inguri woman said bluntly. "I know better than any, I who raised the young Lord at my own breast, as his father before him."
The very thought appalled Cassandra.
"How...? How could you even...?"
With another of her faint smiles, the Inguri woman replied, "We all must serve. And my lord will not concern himself with the likes of you, though I will commend your courage, child, to come this far. Your name?"
"I am Kalina, daughter of Amrenia, called Cassandra by the humans."
The Inguri woman held up both hands and bowed, apparently the custom among her people.
"And I am Hazila, daughter of Zanil, last King of El-Dokun; priestess of the Darkness and servant of the Lord of Shadow."
Cassandra did not know El-Dokun. Could it perhaps be the remains of the lost tree palace of El-Haman? It would stand to reason. That was where the Dark Tribe was born and that was where the previous Lord of Shadow met his end.
Even though she was supposed to see nothing but a traitor and the natural enemy to her people, when Cassandra looked at Hazila, all she saw was another Elf like herself.
"Alari or Inguri, you are still one of El-Naia's children," she said. "I would not fight you if I do not have to."
Hazila laughed.
"To think I would live to see the day when an Alari would not only seek to offer an Inguri mercy but even acknowledge me as one of El-Naia's children. You are an amusing one, Kalina, daughter of Amrenia, and so I will make you an offer in turn. Bow before the Lord as wise Hazil did. Serve him and you will be spared. Perhaps even some use can be made of these... others." She looked at Rafael. "There is a touch of the Darkness about this one already. Yes, I believe he could be made useful."
Cassandra pulled off the graveclothes covering her. There was nothing to hide anymore.
"Never," she vowed. "I have come to defeat your lord or die trying."
"Then you will die, but not before you witness the deaths of your... friends."
Hazila stretched out her hand and three dark spots appeared on the ground. From those spots, spikes shot forth, but before they could reach their targets, they shattered on a barrier Cassandra raised.
"Stay close to me," she told Rafael and the Barnlings.
Hazila glanced to the side and motioned with her head. One of the dead responded by clambering over to where they stood, only for its body to be obliterated when it touched Cassandra's barrier. More came from all directions, in ones, twos, and groups of three and more, all meeting the same fate as the first one.
"You have some skill, I admit," Hazila said. "And you are smart enough to defend yourself from all sides, but you are at a disadvantage here. How long can you continue like this?"
Now using both hands, Hazila caused more of the dark spots to form, gliding around on the ground, the spikes striking the barrier over and over again. It was a test of both power and mental endurance. Hazila had more experience and a favorable environment, and Cassandra was holding back. If she gave her all now, nothing would be left for the Lord of Shadow.
The steady assault on her defenses was taking its toll, though.
Seeing the strain it was putting on Cassandra, Rafael said, "We gotta do somethin' else. Ya can't keep goin' like this."
"There is nothing you can do," Cassandra told him. "I can hold her at bay. I am the only one who can. The moment you step out of the barrier, you will be killed."
"An' what happens ta you when the barrier breaks?"
"It will not break."
Even as she said that, the latest strike caused the barrier to flicker. She had to channel more energy into it, reluctant though she was to sacrifice any more of her reserve before facing the Lord of Shadow himself. However, while she was focusing on strengthening the barrier, she caught a brief flash of Rafael's intent.
"Rafael, no!"
He had already thrown himself at Hazila. The Inguri was so focused on Cassandra that she did not see the attack coming. The dark spots vanished and Cassandra could feel her power fade. Her hands quaked as they tried to seize hold of Rafael, perhaps in a bid to take him with her, but he pushed her away before she could do anything. She fell to the ground clutching at the bleeding wound in her chest.
But as her power faded, a new one emerged, one far greater. It could only belong to the Lord of Shadow himself.
"And so the first of our guests have arrived," a deep, sinister voice said.