Chapter 87: Release
"Tell me, Lady Knight, whom have you brought for me this time?" the Shade Lord asked. "More unlucky adventurers to swell the ranks of my dark army?"
"Far from it, fiend. We are the light that shall dispel your darkness!" Anomen called out. His voice did not seem to carry well, as if the darkness swallowed sound as well as light.
"Bravado. Tiresome, and predictable." The Shade Lord gestured towards the far end of the courtyard, and one by one, several shadows emerged from the gloom.
"Sssssthhh... Mazzy... you left us here....," the first shadow whispered. "No matter... come... join the delightful darknesss..." The other shadows made some disturbing chittering sounds, almost as if they were trying to laugh.
"Patrick!" Mazzy cried out. A look of anguish passed over her face, then she seemed to steel herself. "No, not Patrick, only his twisted spirit. My poor friends, what has he done to you?"
"He's given us back... our existence..." another shadow said. "Sssthhh... we're all here, Mazzy."
"Ready yourselves," Valygar whispered.
"Join us..." Shadow Patrick hissed. "Embrace the master... give the gift of flesh..."
"Never! Every fiber in my being would resist such a thing, and Patrick - my Patrick - would never have asked it of me!" Mazzy turned to glare at the Shade Lord. "Twisted fiend, only death will stop me from avenging the brave souls that you have stolen!"
The shadows chittered, and the Shade Lord laughed. "So noble! A night on this altar would have made you a worthy consort. Don't look so harshly upon me. You would be a most evil Shade. The Laws of Chaos subvert. The noblest souls in life make for deliciously evil undead..."
"You will be fully dead when I am through with you," Mazzy growled quietly.
"Is this is how you will have it? Regrettable. We would have ruled these weak fools together. Come, my shades, make short work of them! They shall join our army if not our family!"
On Valygar's cue, everyone sprang into action. Ember closed her eyes and chanted a few syllables, short yet powerful, that would bond her and her companions closer together in combat, allowing them to fight in defensive harmony. Mere moments after she completed her spell, a haste spell cast by Edwin descended upon her, speeding up both her senses and her reactions, followed by blessings from Anomen's god, strengthening her body and spirit. Hefting her staff, she hurried to join Minsc and Yoshimo, who were fighting the Shade Lord's minions.
Just like they had planned - and on his insistence - Valygar was the only one to confront the Shade Lord up close, pitting his katana against cruel spells and a shadowy blade. He was assisted from afar by Mazzy, who sent burning arrow after burning arrow through their enemy's incorporeal body, and Edwin and Anomen, who attacked with magic. Jets of flame and bolts of holy energy flew through the air, each spell illuminating the courtyard with a flash of red or white for a brief instant before striking the Shade Lord.
And somewhere within the Shade Lord's ghostly form, the ranger Merella was still alive.
Ember could feel her.
The sensation was far from the acute awareness of life that came with her druidic mediations; instead, it was Ember's blood that whispered to her about Merella. Something within her core longed to take on the only enemy who was still alive, the only one who still had blood to spill, the only one who could still be murdered. But she is not the enemy. Gritting her teeth, Ember ducked so that Minsc could swing his blade over her back, and rammed the end of her staff through a ghostly head. There were so many shadows, and they were moving closer to where the casters and Mazzy stood...
One of the shadows broke off and lunged at Mazzy, but it never reached her; in one fluid motion, Yoshimo threw his katana at the shadow. The blade slashed through the shadow's torso and embedded itself in the ground, standing on end with its tip wedged between two of the tiles that covered the courtyard paths. The Kara-Turan winced as he pulled the blade free, but evidently, it had not been damaged by the contact with the ground; with a sigh of with relief, he spun around to cut down another shadow.
"Arvoreen protect me," Mazzy whispered, and dropped her bow.
A split second later, the Shade Lord released his host and rose up like a pillar of black flame, leaving Merella's body crumpled on the ground below him. The writhing mass of darkness coursed straight past Valygar and flooded into Mazzy.
"No!" Valygar shouted in despair. Tendrils of shadow weaved around the halfling, trying to envelop her as she staggered back and forth, clearly trying to fight off the Shade Lord. Then, she lurched towards the dark altar. Her right arm, completely wrapped in shadow, reached out and touched the altar. The Shade Lord laughed, and consumed Mazzy.
"Thaxll'ssillyia!" the Shade Lord shouted. A deep roar, loud enough to make the ground tremble under their feet, came from the direction of the pit.
Raising her staff to strike, Ember ran towards the Shade Lord. Valygar's plan to protect the rest of them had proven futile, and they would not be able to stand against the dragon; their only chance was to somehow end this before the dragon got there. But how? She aimed her staff at the Shade Lord's head, but was violently knocked to the ground well before her blow landed. Shaking her head to clear it, she looked up just in time to see the Shade Lord send Minsc crashing into one of the few trees that stood in the courtyard. The fiend that had taken Mazzy no longer held a blade, but evidently, he had no use for one.
But he was still leaning against the altar. His right hand never broke contact with it.
She looked towards Edwin, and their eyes met in understanding. The wizard immediately started to pelt the altar with lightning spells, the noise almost drowning out the sound of giant, beating wings, while Ember closed her eyes and whispered an incantation to the dull, starving grasses and shrubs in the courtyard. Her words woke the plants from their daze, and they quickly sent creepers and tendrils towards the altar, using their last reserves to probe an object they had so far avoided touching at all. Tiny roots found minuscule cracks, and began to work their way in.
With a snarl, the Shade Lord turned towards Ember. Valygar and Yoshimo went between them, holding him off with their katanas.
"Anomen!" Ember shouted. "The altar!"
The cleric nodded, knocked a shadow away from him and towards Minsc's waiting blade, and started praying. Bolts of white light struck the altar with an almost palpable force, adding to the effect of the plant roots and Edwin's lightning.
The shadow dragon, with wings of darkness and eyes that burned black, appeared over the courtyard wall.
The dark surface of the altar shattered, revealing itself to be nothing but a crust. An older altar of pure gold lay beneath it.
As the Shade Lord screamed, his body withered and shrank. Mazzy's form reappeared, surrounded by wisps and strands of darkness that seemed to be trying to pull away from her and away from the golden altar, but it could not escape; grimacing with effort, Mazzy seemed to be holding the Shade Lord within her even as she clung to the altar. A high-pitched wail escaped through her mouth. The dragon hung still in mid-air, as if confused.
Above them, the dark clouds churned wildly, then began to break up. Beams of midday sunlight shot through the gaps and tore through the shadow dragon, ripping it to shreds that burned away to nothingness. Sunlight fell upon Mazzy; the darkness fell away from her, much like a fine dust being blown away from a surface, and vanished. The remaining shadows dissipated as daylight flooded the courtyard for the first time in months.
"I knew," Mazzy muttered as she crouched by the foot of the altar, shivering. "I knew I was the one he'd try to claim, no matter what we did. I knew."
"Free..." a hoarse voice whispered. It was Merella, breathing quickly and shallowly. "Myself again... Thank y..." Her words trailed off, and her breathing stopped.
Yoshimo kneeled over the ranger's dead body. "She is smiling," he said quietly.
While the forest woke up around the temple, the small group gathered around the golden altar.
"It is done, though the vengeance is empty," Mazzy said bitterly. "Patrick and my companions had to serve in death as slaves to the Shade Lord."
"They died with honour, regardless of what the Shade Lord did to them afterwards," Valygar said.
"They were good people, who fought always for justice." Mazzy sighed. "Theirs was a truly evil fate. I would that I could honour their sacrifice..."
"The god that this altar stood for is long dead," Yoshimo said. "Would it not make a fine memorial to your fallen comrades?"
"Boo agrees! Light and justice and righteousness belong here, and Boo tells me that happy birds will soon also belong here again. It will make a very nice memorial for such great friends!"
A trace of a smile crossed Mazzy's face. "I... I think they would appreciate that."
The group returned to the dragon's lair, where they found Mazzy's friends' weapons scattered across the floor of the pit, and brought the gear back to the altar. Valygar and Minsc wrapped Merella's body in her own cloak - she would have preferred being buried near her cabin, Valygar said - while the rest cleared ancient leaves and dust away from the base of the altar.
"My lost companions, my boon friends," Mazzy said as she solemnly placed her friends' weapons in front of the altar. "May your souls rest in peace. I shall always carry your courage and your honor with me; I shall strike down evil in your name. Know, noble heroes, that you are not forgotten. May this altar always stand as a monument to your unselfish courage." The halfling let the last weapon, a short sword, rest in her hands for a few lingering moments before gently placing it beside the others. "Farewell."
For a short while, Mazzy just kneeled in front of the altar, then she stood up and wiped her eyes.
A horrible suspicion filled Ember. "The last blade... was that Patrick's?"
Mazzy looked at her. There was a deep sadness in her eyes, as if she had lost something vital and didn't quite know what to do without it. "He was my husband."
There were no shadows left in the temple, and as the group made their way back to Amauna's tomb, the only traces they saw of the undead were small piles of bone where the skeletons had collapsed, their spirits freed through the destruction of the Shade Lord. Gaps and cracks in the ceiling of the temple ruins let more than enough light in to dispel the gloom that had filled the chambers before; they no longer felt like a part of a dungeon, but rather like someone's home, abandoned an eternity ago.
Amauna herself was the only spirit that lingered in the temple. The ceiling of her tomb was still sound, and the chamber lay in darkness, but the ghost's face was radiant with joy.
"You have done it!" Amauna exclaimed. "The Shade Lord is no more. My duty has been fulfilled." She waved a transparent hand towards the glass doors set in one of the walls of the chamber, then backed away as the doors slowly drifted open, revealing the altar of the Eternal Sun.
The golden altar in the courtyard was simple, rigid, logical; a table upon which offerings could be placed. The altar of the Eternal Sun was not a table, but a statue of a robed woman. Her gentle face looked down upon her lap, where she cradled a giant, multifaceted gem that seemed to pour out sunlight, bathing the room and most of Amauna's tomb in a brilliant golden-white light.
"I will go, now, to rejoin my Keeper of the Eternal Sun," Amauna said from the only remaining shadowed corner. "I owe my freedom to you, and will always be thankful. Live, my friends... live long and live well. May the Light be forever victorious."
With a smile on her face, Amauna stepped into the light from the sun gem. The light shone through her, like sunshine on a delicate veil, and gently washed her form away with it until only the gem and its radiance remained.
The child prophetess had gone home.