Chapter 37
The Legacy of the Darkness

Necropolis, Campus Caedis

The Lord of Shadow was truly a fearsome sight to behold. He was taller than most men, his body a horrific fusion of man and spider. His eight lidless eyes were like polished obsidian. Hairy sheaths covered the long black fangs that extended from his mouth like tusks. He had two pairs of spider legs to complement the set of human arms and legs, but these spider legs seemed prone to involuntary twitching, as if they were guided by a separate mind, one eager to grab at whatever prey was close at hand.
He began to step forward. Weakly, Hazila reached out to him.
"My lord..."
The Lord of Shadow paid her no heed, walking past without the slightest glance in her direction. He stopped a short distance from Cassandra and her companions. Looking at them, he sighed audibly.
"This... This is what the forces of the Light send against me? It truly must be the end."
Disappointing the Lord of Shadow so might well be the only effective blow landed this day and Cassandra took some grim satisfaction in that.
Her attention went to Hazila, who lay there dying, abandoned by the creature she fostered. So this was the Lord of Shadow's gratitude. Cassandra was not surprised, but she found herself speaking up all the same.
"Why do you not help her?"
This gained Hazila nothing more than a sidelong glance.
"It has served its purpose," the Lord of Shadow replied. "If you are so concerned, why do you not help it?"
"She is of the Darkness, I am of the Light. My powers would only do further harm."
"And what do you expect to gain by this? Gratitude? Sympathy?"
"True mercy is for its own sake."
The Lord of Shadow tilted his head curiously.
"You do realize who you are speaking to, do you not?"
"I suppose I am a fool for expecting anything else from you."
"You are a fool for many reasons," the Lord of Shadow replied, his mouth twisting into the hint of a grin, "but at least you are entertaining. It is something my life has sorely lacked."
"I am surprised you would long so for entertainment, given what you are."
"A flaw of my human blood, perhaps."
It was unpleasant to think anything about him was human.
"At least put her out of her misery," Cassandra said. "Surely she deserves that much."
"Why should I do that? It has failed me. Thanks to that damnable Gift of yours, your people are worthless to me after death, so for one of her kind to die is the gravest act of disobedience. Why should that be rewarded with any mercy?
"If you care so much, do it yourself. I will not interfere."
Hazila glared at Cassandra, saying, "Do not waste your pity on me, Kalina, daughter of Amrenia. Tend to your own doom."
Even for the sake of easing the Inguri's passing, Cassandra found that she could not go through with granting Hazila a more merciful death. However, instead she was suddenly gripped with the urge to lash out at the Lord of Shadow. Ineffectual though any attack may be, the thought of striking him in his arrogance was all too appealing.
Apparently sensing her intent--indeed, he may very well have been the force behind it--, the Lord of Shadow warned her, "Do not be hasty, daughter of the Alari. Your time will come and come soon, but not yet. Wait a while longer."
Cassandra recalled what he had said to them when he first appeared, as did Rafael, who asked him, "What'd ya mean 'the firs' a' our guests'?"
Given the Lord of Shadow's monstrous appearance and the dread reputation of his race, he was proving to be a surprisingly indulgent conversationalist.
"Others are coming," he replied. "Did you not know? Let us wait for them. It would be too easy to kill you now. As I have said, my life has been lacking in entertainment. I would like the full value of this experience."
Of course, when you enjoy such an overwhelming advantage, you can afford a certain measure of leisure. Could this prove to be the one fatal weakness Cassandra could exploit to find victory despite the odds?
She tried subtly building her power while the Lord of Shadow was standing there idly, but he noticed what she was doing immediately.
"Yes. Go right ahead drawing what energy you can, Alari. It will not avail you."
Cassandra did not let this deter her, but it was clear that she was not going to take him by surprise. So long as he was in a talking mood, she would do well to keep him talking.
"Was your sire this overconfident when he met his end?" she asked.
"I would not know," the Lord of Shadow replied. "I was brought here as a hatchling. I inherited his power, so it was little more than an empty shell that was vanquished. You are not so fortunate, daring to challenge a scion of the Dark Race at the height of his power. You have no hope of overcoming me, no matter how many of you would stand against me."
"We'll see 'bout that," Rafael said defiantly.
The Lord of Shadow was thoroughly unimpressed.
"You, Alari, you at least have power enough for me to recognize," he said to Cassandra, "feeble though it is, but why bring these powerless worms with you? Even if you would strip the lifeforce from them, it would not amount to much."
"All life is threatened by you and so all life has a stake in this fight."
"As you will. I find your delusions curious. What it might be like to walk among you mortals."
"You will never know if you bring down the world of the living."
"I am not that curious," the Lord of Shadow replied. "It would be an ill thing to let idle curiosity distract me from the Dark Race's mission."
"What will be left if you succeed?"
"When I succeed," the Lord of Shadow corrected her. "An eternal kingdom where I reign supreme. What higher ambition is there?"
"Your kind has been stopped before. You will be stopped again."
"Perhaps, but a plan is already in motion to ensure the mission goes forward. Speaking of which..."
Cassandra's was rightly focused so entirely on the Lord of Shadow that she nearly did not notice him and indeed if it were anyone else, she probably would not have felt his presence and recognized him as he drew closer. Unwittingly, she turned her eyes from the Lord of Shadow to him.
"Seth!?" she exclaimed.
For his part, he was just as surprised to see her.
"Cassandra? What are you doing here?"
Seth was not alone, but she would never have imagined who he was with. It was the very man who killed his father twenty years ago. What were they doing standing side by side?
"Why is he with you?"
Seth gave her a look that told her he found the situation just as unthinkable and ridiculous as she did.
"Long story," he replied in his usual reticence. He then asked the shadow man, "Sicarius, is this the enemy you were talking about?"
"Indeed," the shadow man said. "The master of the dead..."
Cassandra knew what the shadow man called himself. She knew his name from before his fall to darkness. She would do just as well to think of him by the new name, as the old one no longer fit him. Umbriel, he called himself. Strange that a creature of the Darkness would stand in defiance of its master.
Instead of his curious choice of a companion or the monstrous Lord of Shadow before them, however, Seth's attention was drawn to the figure of Rafael.
"Who's this with you?" he asked.
Was that jealousy she detected? How could he find the leisure to be jealous now of all times? Where was his sense of priority?
"Introduction will have to wait until later," she told him. "You should leave this place, Seth."
Seth paid but a passing glance over his shoulder to the scores of city-dwellers that had emerged to bar the way should he try to retreat.
"It doesn't look like leaving is a choice I can make," he said, not that he had any intention of leaving even if the road was paved in gold and showered him in silver every step of the way.
The Lord of Shadow seemed amused at the arrival of his latest guests and asked Seth, "So, king of the humans, have you come this far to personally bear witness to my nuptials?"
"Your what? What are you talking about, monster?"
The Lord of Shadow made a hissing sound that was apparently the closest he could come to giving a derisive sniff at the question.
"Of course you would not know," he said. "You will see soon enough. But do not expect me to call you 'Father'."
Cassandra had her suspicions before, but now it was all clear.
"So that was your plan," she said. "You will not succeed."
"Those wretched lizards have failed me, but I will have my bride," the Lord of Shadow insisted. "I must take care to keep you alive, Alari. I would have you bear witness as well. After all, you are now the closest thing to a mother of the bride."
Of course none of this made any sense to Seth.
"Cassandra, what's he talking about?"
"The Lord of Shadow means to make Aurelia his bride to preserve his bloodline," Cassandra replied.
"What!? Why Aurelia?"
"She was bred for this very purpose," the Lord of Shadow said. "Did you expect her to inherit a mere human kingdom?"
Seth's anger flared and all rational thought fled.
"Seth, no!"
Cassandra's voice alone was not enough to stop and enraged father from rushing at the Lord of Shadow. There was a flash of black light as Seth collided with the monster's barrier and he was sent flying back. Despite his earlier boasting, the Lord of Shadow was not so careless as to allow Seth to come close enough to land a blow on him.
The shadow man Umbriel stood over Seth. He did not make any offer to help him to his feet, all too aware such an offer would be rejected.
"This is not an opponent you can simply throw yourself at, O King," he said. "Try using your head a little."
"You have any suggestions?" Seth asked irately.
Umbriel nodded to Cassandra and said, "Leave the actual fighting to your Alf woman. She is the only one who can do anything against this devil."
"Then what're we supposed to do?"
"Draw its attention," he said. "That sword of yours should have some effect on it, so it cannot ignore you." He held up the black crystal in his off hand. "This should do some good as well."
Cassandra had sensed the power of the crystal Umbriel carried before and while it did seem to amplify his dark powers, she was not so certain it could be used for their benefit. However, if he and Seth were going to distract the Lord of Shadow, it might just buy her the time she needed to prepare her all-or-nothing attack, their one, slim hope of victory.
She had to trust them while she did her part. It was a great risk to rely on them, but what other choice did she have? The only alternative was to have Rafael and the Barnlings do the work of keeping the Lord of Shadow occupied and that guaranteed little more than a swift and painful death.
As she turned her focus inward, the world around her faded away. Her objective was to sever the bond between flesh and spirit, and in the instant before she lost conscious control, she would convert her lifeforce into energy that would be directed at the Lord of Shadow. Would one life, even one that could endure for centuries, be enough? There was no other choice.
Before she could complete the process, though, she sensed a change that brought her back. The stone Umbriel was using to amplify his power was giving the greater part of its energy to the Lord of Shadow, linking the three of them. By the time Cassandra realized the danger, it was too late.
Enchanting his hand so that it was encased in stone, the Lord of Shadow caught Umbriel's blade and held it fast. Leaning in, he said, "Did you honestly think you could raise your blade against me, you who have given yourself body and soul to the Darkness?"
A purple light deep within the stone started to glow and Umbriel's body shook as the Lord of Shadow's power flowed into him.
"Your will is strong," the Lord of Shadow said, "but it is no match for the power of the Dark Race!"
And so it was. Umbriel stopped struggling against the Lord of Shadow, who let go of his sword. When he turned around, his eyes were washed over black with black veins rising on the surface of his skin.
"Umbriel!" Cassandra called out to him, but he was beyond all voices but one.
"Kill them," the Lord of Shadow said.
Umbriel swung at Seth first, who parried the strike with little effort.
"You've gotten slower, sicarius," he said, "but I guess it's not really you I'm fighting, is it?"
"It will be more than enough to take your head if you are not careful, king of the humans," the Lord of Shadow replied. "I would rather have you living for the wedding, but death is not final with me. Entertain me or die in the attempt!"
"You've got poor taste, monster," Seth said. "Why should I waste time with the branches when I can go straight to the root?"
Seth mad a dash for the Lord of Shadow, but Umbriel barred the way. As they were exchanging blows, Cassandra realized what must be done.
"Seth, the stone! Get the stone out of his hand and it might be enough to break the spell!"
Saying this seemed to prompt Umbriel to be more defensive of the stone, holding it closer to his body.
"Easier said than done!" Seth called back to her.
Apparently wanting to make things more interesting, the Lord of Shadow took advantage of the fact that Seth was fully occupied fighting Umbriel, stabbing him in the side with his spider claws.
"Seth!"
Seth batted away a swipe from Umbriel, then clove through the legs piercing his side. The Lord of Shadow growled in pain and withdrew, but the severed claws regenerated almost instantaneously. Seth, on the other hand, could not recover so quickly.
"Stand back, Cassandra," Rafael said.
Seeing what he meant to do, Cassandra clutched at his sleeve, crying, "No, Rafael! You must not fight him!"
Rafael shook off her grip.
"No time ta argue!"
He darted forward, going straight for Umbriel. How could this be happening? Should she tell him? Would knowing now even help anything?
Rafael deflected a swing from Umbriel as he tried to get past his defenses to make a grab for the stone. It did not work and he was thrown on the defensive. As good as he was with a knife, Umbriel was the better fighter. Rafael would not last long against him.
Cassandra loosed a beam of light to strike Umbriel, just enough to distract him without doing any great harm. It created a brief opening for Rafael to snatch the stone out of Umbriel's hand and dash it against the pavestones. The energy dissipated quickly, but the Lord of Shadow's grip was not yet broken.
Umbriel slashed Rafael across the back. Rafael turned in an effort to counter, but his swing missed. Umbriel responded by running him through.
"Rafael!"
"Raffy!"
As Umbriel held Rafael impaled on his blade, the Lord of Shadow's influence faded and he returned to his senses. His eyes widened in horror at the sight of what he did. Yanking the blade out of Rafael and casting it aside, he cradled the young thief as his strength left him.
"What... What have I done...?"
It was too late. Cassandra could feel his lifeforce fading away. There was nothing she could do. Powerlessly, she fell to her knees.
"And here I thought you all were resolved to die," the Lord of Shadow said, coolly mocking them. "The human heart is such a fragile thing."
Cassandra clutched her head in pain from the veritable inferno of rage that ignited within Umbriel. Leaving Rafael's body, he snatched up his sword and drew the second from its sheath as he threw himself at the Lord of Shadow, showering him in countless blows, as if the sheer ferocity of his assault would be enough to overcome the Lord of Shadow's barrier.
The Lord of Shadow blasted him backward, but he immediately sprinted right back to strike again. Before he could reach the Lord of Shadow, though, one of the city-dwellers intercepted him with more following close behind. Umbriel viciously tore into the walking dead who got in his way, but there was a seemingly endless supply of them. The twos and threes became tens and twenties and it seemed that they would be crushed by the sheer mass of them.
Cassandra looked around uncertainly. Besides Umbriel, Seth was fighting off the dead as best he could, but wounded as he was, he was quickly getting bogged down. The Barnlings stayed close to her with weapons drawn for what little good it would do them. If she used her powers, she could help, but she did not think she could stop all of them and even if she could, it would leave her with little energy left to confront the Lord of Shadow. Perhaps that was all according to his design.
Should she just ignore the dead and prepare her attack once more? None of her choices were good, but she had to think about the greater victory. Nothing else mattered in comparison, no matter how much the thought pained her. Before she could begin, though, she sensed a new presence, vastly unlike anything else here in the City of the Dead.
There was a brilliant flash of light and a wave of magical energy so powerful that it obliterated all of the dead that pressed at them. Nothing remained of the hundreds of walking corpses but ash that hung in the air, gently falling to the ground. The Lord of Shadow was of course unaffected, though a brief shimmer of his barrier around him made it clear that he could not have absorbed such an attack unprotected without harm.
Tracing the wave back to its source, there was a woman ragged and worn in the tatters of unfamiliar robes. Her eyes were lifeless and empty, yet there was still a clear spark of will driving her onward and a passion that could not be denied, even if it was like the sleeping flame burning in the embers. It would not be enough to turn the tide, however.
The woman looked at Cassandra and said, "You are the one, are you not? I waited for you, yet you did not come. I went to seek others, but who I found... What I found..."
Cassandra felt her chest squeeze as the woman's pain poured into her, and that was little more than a glimpse at a distance. She did not dare look any deeper. Her mind was not strong enough for it after all that had happened.
She realized who the woman was. She was the one sent from the Isle of the Magi, representing those who would overthrow the Archon of Void and prevent the Lord of Shadow's ascent.
"Things did not go as planned," she said lamely.
"It does not matter," the woman replied. "We are here now. We will either kill this thing or die in the attempt."
"Yes, the Alari has already said something to that effect," the Lord of Shadow said drily, "but I cannot have too many more of you dying. I need witnesses for my wedding."
The Lord of Shadow stretched out his hand. Knowing what he meant to do, all Cassandra could do in response was weakly say, "No..."
No protests or entreaty would stop him, of course. Rafael's body stirred and he gasped as he took his first breath in life beyond life. He slowly rose to his feet, still ashen-faced, the blood of his fatal wounds not yet dry. His body twitched and jerked as his spirit struggled against being forcibly returned to its mortal shell.
"Stubborn thing," the Lord of Shadow muttered. "So much alike, but as they say, blood will tell." He gave Umbriel a knowing look before saying, "How about this then?"
The Lord of Shadow spread his arms wide and the ground shuddered as a wave of power rushed out of him. Most of the energy was channeled directly into Rafael. His body jolted from the shock, then drooped limply as the power subsided. Slowly, he righted himself, only now his eyes shone with a pale purple glow.
When Rafael spoke, his voice was overlaid with that of the Lord of Shadow.
"Well, this is interesting," he said. "What do you think? Is this a more pleasing shape? Might my bride appreciate it more?"
"Release him," Umbriel growled. He pointed his sword at the Lord of Shadow and shouted, "Let him go!"
Rafael held up his hand and flexed his fingers.
"I think not," he said. "I rather like this body. I think I will keep it. It is much easier to make use of than your body. More potential. More pliable."
Heedlessly, Umbriel threw himself at the Lord of Shadow, but before his sword could land a blow, Rafael darted between the two of them. Umbriel stopped his sword short of striking Rafael, who then used the power of the Lord of Shadow flowing through him to send Umbriel careening back, slamming into the wall of a nearby building.
"Cassy, what do we do?" Sammy asked.
"There is not much we can do short of destroying his body," Cassandra replied, "but if the alternative is to leave him in the clutches of that monster..."
She glanced to Umbriel, who was getting back to his feet. Surely he would agree with her, but did she have the right? The only way she could succeed was if she struck before the Lord of Shadow realized what she meant to do. She was hesitant, even though she could not afford to hesitate, but in that opening, something unexpected happened.
A pebble bounced off the Lord of Shadow's head. Between the energy he was devoting to puppeteering Rafael's body and the insignificance of the pebble, he had no defense against it. As his head tilted slightly in the direction it came from, a more serious missile--a small arrow--struck him in one of his larger eyes. He let out an animalistic shriek, much higher pitched than his usual speaking voice, and his hold on Rafael was broken.
Somehow the Barnlings had slipped off to the side to launch their ill-advised attack. Cassandra did not even have the chance to yell at them to run before the Lord of Shadow's arm shot out and a large beam of black light ripped open a massive scar in the city.
Against all reason, the two Barnlings were not incinerated by the blast that utterly destroyed everything in its path for as far as the eye could see. Looking back at the Lord of Shadow, the reason became clear. Rafael was pressed up against the Lord of Shadow, driving one of his daggers into his chest. It was just enough to throw off his aim.
"Miserable worm..." the Lord of Shadow growled.
A fresh wave of energy sent Rafael flying back, but the distraction served its purpose. A glowing white glyph appeared under the Lord of Shadow's feet. For all his great power, he was held fast where he stood.
"What!?"
It was the woman, floating above the ground with her hand outstretched, her eyes glowing the same piercing white as the glyph.
In a voice that was not her own, the woman said, "I am the light in the darkness. I am the dagger held at your breast. Your apostle erred when he took me into himself. It was the undoing of your sire and now it will be your undoing as well."
She turned to Cassandra and said, "Daughter of the forest, I entrust my power to you. Strike down this creature and let shine the light of a new dawn."
The woman's body dissolved into a million particles of light that flooded into Cassandra. This was not the woman's power. She was but a conduit and now that overwhelming power flowed through Cassandra. For a moment, she considered her original plan. Magnified by this new power, surely she would have the strength to succeed, but instead of just throwing the energy directly at the Lord of Shadow, another idea came to her.
"Seth, get up," she said, her voice reverberating with all those who lent her their power. "Take your sword and end this."
Though struggling from his wound, Seth rose to his feet with Excalibur firmly in hand. Cassandra took the cursed ring that had been used against her and put it on her finger. Instead of dark energy flowing into her, she would stream the light back to its source and hopefully purge its influence on Aurelia in the process. Only a blade of Excalibur's craftsmanship would be capable of this. The power of the Ancients sleeping within the blade combined with the light entrusted to her was their best hope of victory.
She channeled her energy into Excalibur and the blade shone like one of the stars. It was too bright for Seth to keep his eyes open, but his well-honed instincts and a little help from Cassandra guided his blade to its mark. Just as the Lord of Shadow broke free of the glyph binding him, Seth buried Excalibur into his heart.
The Lord of Shadow returned the favor by biting down on Seth's shoulder, his mail no defense against those horrible black fangs. Seth did not flinch, though. as the battle between Light and Darkness raged inside the Lord of Shadow's body. Cassandra continued to channel energy into Excalibur, but she feared it would not be enough. She could not afford to hesitate any longer. One more push and she could end all this.
She started to let go of her mortal attachments. Shedding the flesh was not so different from casting off a robe. However, her hopes, her fears and her regrets, these were not so easy to release. There was so much she wished she had said, so much she wished she had done, but all that had to go or everything that had been sacrificed would be in vain.
Just as she was about to complete her release, she felt a familiar, comforting presence. It was like a hand on her shoulder, an embrace from behind. By the time she recognized it, it pushed her away, taking all the energy with it. When Cassandra returned to her senses, she saw the balance had shifted. The Lord of Shadow's body began to crack apart with shafts of light spilling out of it, finally exploding in a wave of power that knocked Cassandra to the ground.
She lay there stunned for a short while, thoroughly drained from her ordeal. When she began to stir, a single word escaped from her lips.
"Mother..."
It would seem that her mother's spirit had not been entirely taken by El-Naia's Gift. It chose to remain with Cassandra and took her place when the moment of sacrifice came. Had she seen her daughter's intentions when Cassandra came to put her to rest? Not even death could stop a mother's love.
Her attention tuned to Seth, who had been knocked a short ways from where he battled the Lord of Shadow. Excalibur's blade still glowed faintly from the power channeled into it.
"Seth!"
She stumbled over to his side. He was wincing in great pain with the broken fangs of the Lord of Shadow still sticking out of his shoulder. Cassandra pulled out the fangs that continued to drip with their venom, then went to work getting Seth's mail shirt off of him. The wound was black with the skin around it swollen and purplish. She had to act quickly. She pressed her hand against the wound and started to chant, but nothing happened. She could not feel the movement of the æther in her or through her. Her powers were gone.
"Move," a harsh voice said.
It was Umbriel. He knelt down beside Seth and pulled down his mask. He stuck a finger into the wound, tasted the blood, then spat it out. He then reached into a sack under his cloak and pulled out a small pouch with some dried leaves. Chewing the leaves, he then spread them over the wound, then cut strips from Seth's shirt to bind it up. He then retrieved a glass vial, breaking open the wax seal with his teeth.
Holding the vial to Seth's lips, he said, "Drink."
Seth gulped down the contents of the bottle, but the face he made was as if the taste was worse than the pain of the wound.
As Umbriel stood back up, he said, "That alone will not save him, but it will buy him time until your Alf powers return."
Before Cassandra could thank him, he turned to where Rafael had fallen. The Barnlings were kneeling at his side with tears in their eyes.
Sammy was trying fruitlessly to rouse him by shaking his shoulder.
"Raffy..."
"Get away from him," Umbriel said tersely. "He's already gone."
Cassandra did not know what to say.
"Uriel..."
Umbriel glared at her.
"Don't call me by that name."
He walked over to Rafael's body and knelt down besides him. The Barnlings wisely put some distance between them and him. After a moment of silence, Umbriel lifted up Rafael and got back on his feet.
"You brought my son here, Alf," he said to Cassandra.
Though there was not a particular edge of accusation in his voice, Cassandra felt it all the same.
"It was his own choice, Uriel," she replied.
"I told you not to call me by that name."
"He... he never understood the entire story. I only told him a part of it."
Umbriel shook his head.
"Nothing would have come of knowing and now it ends in its final tragedy."
"Where will you go?"
"I will find a place to bury my son, away from these cursed lands. After that, who can say?"
Carrying Rafael in his arms, he walked past Seth, stopping briefly to say, "You are a reckless fool, Seth Pendragon, but you are a good and valiant man. If you do not let your pride and valor overtake your sense, you will be a worthy king. The test is over. My work here is done."
Still in the throes of his pain, Seth had nothing to say in return. And that was the last Cassandra saw of either Umbriel or Rafael.
The Barnlings were standing by Cassandra's side, watching Umbriel go.
"I don't get it, Cassy," Sammy said. "What happened?"
"Who was that woman?" Tammy asked. "What was that 'light in the darkness' stuff?"
"The woman was the person I was supposed to meet before I found you two," she said. "Whatever power sent her took control and redirected the flow of energy that was feeding the Lord of Shadow. Our enemies had their plots, but so too did our allies, even if we did not know who they were."
Seth grunted as he sat up, holding his wounded shoulder. Looking around around him, he said, "So, all this was why you left?"
"I am sorry for not telling you," Cassandra said, "but you would not have understood."
Seth chuckled bitterly to himself.
"I still don't understand, but it's over now, isn't it?"
"For now, at least. The Lord of Shadow is gone and there is no other to succeed him. I will not say it is the end, but we have earned ourselves at least some measure of peace, however long it lasts."
Seth struggled to get to his feet, but he did not have the strength to stand under his own power. Cassandra hurried to his side to support him. In spite of all that had happened, or perhaps because of it, there was so much warmth and comfort in their touch.
Smiling weakly, Seth said, "Kalina, let's go home."
More welcome words had never been spoken.