Mexii slipped silently into the room.
Instead of her old murky black essence, she had a pure white mist floating gaudily about her, brightening her features to reveal her face in full. She had prominent cheekbones, and sharp, knowing eyes. Her hair was blonde, and had begun to fan out behind her whether windy or not.
This was the highest room in Tafta Tower, as Mune and Juliexus had said, yet there was nothing in here apart from a four-poster bed and a rotting chest of drawers. Nothing, not a stone, or a gem, or even a book of some sort, nothing to indicate that the entirety of Herothi's power was centred on an object in this very room.
Mexii had long since outrun her pursuers. As she had ascended towards the halo of evil vapour that surrounded the summit of the Tower it had somehow purified her, absolved her, relieved her of the darkness forced upon her like her father.
And a deep rage burned in her stomach. He had tricked her, forced her to abandon the Trinity, her friends, her allies. She would have her revenge. She would be the Shadow to unite all Shadows, to turn them against their evil creator and banish him whence he had come.
She crossed to the window. The centaur army was nearing the walls of the black fortress, the spears glinting eerily in the half-darkness. She could see the web of cacti she had so unwittingly tried to pass through. To the east, great sand dunes roiled up towards the sky, marking the edge of Donmar Desert. But she was not here to examine the scenery.
The fortifications of Herothi's lair were formidable. Ballistae stood waiting at the crenellations. Anchored catapults sat atop the high towers, preparing to launch fireballs of burning pitch at the attackers. Shadows sprinted across the walls like cats, ferrying messages, readying engines, and spreading the darkness. Mexii stood at the window for some time, watching her brothers and sisters at work.
Then she heard a faint moan from behind her.
A crouched human figure she had overlooked before was now stirring under a moth-eaten quilt. Mexii backed away, alarmed, as a wizened grey head poked out the top of the bed.
An ancient woman slowly pulled back the quilt. Her eyes were riddled with cataracts, and her wispy hair looked like strands of smoke from a dying fire. Her face was so lined it looked like elephant skin.
She reached out a hand.
"Who are you?" said Mexii, aghast.
The woman did not seem to have heard her. Maybe she was deaf. She pulled herself into a sitting position.
"My child," she croaked hoarsely, a joyous smile transforming her face. "One of my children has at last returned to me ..."
Mexii was doing some very quick thinking.
"So you're my -"
"Yes, of course I'm your mother, don't be so dim-witted," snapped the woman impatiently, her demeanour changing almost at once.
"How are you my mother?" said Mexii incredulously. "You look old enough to be my great-great-grandmother."
"Well, then, it's a pity immortality isn't good enough for everyone, then, isn't it!" she retorted, reaching for a walking stick on the bedside table. She struggled to her feet. Mexii approached her to try and help her, but she said, "No, no, dear, I must manage myself."
"So then you must be Herothi's wife?"
"Why, yes, I suppose you might possibly think that. Yes, I was his wife, although I now consider myself his mortal enemy."
"You're an appalling judge of character, girl. Do you seriously believe I would want to dabble in magic as much as he?"
"No, but -"
"Keep your mouth shut and listen. I don't have much time. I haven't endured seventy-five years of torment to be questioned like a criminal in a copshop." The woman hobbled slowly over to the dilapidated chest of drawers, and pulled one of them open. She picked up a canvas, nailed onto a varnished, dusty wooden frame, and thrust it into Mexii's hands.
"Your father and I," she said blissfully, as Mexii looked down at the painting. A handome man was leaning against a battlement of what looked like the very castle they were in. He was dressed in a magnificent scarlet robe, and had his arm around a young woman with raven hair, painted to sweep eternally in an invisible breeze.
"Those were the days," said the woman reminiscently. "King Herod and his wife Ariana, ruling peacefully over the entire land of Karmine. Here in this castle, before it became the centre of darkness as it is today. All humans would bow to us, the centaurs would trade with us, and the harpies and dragwoods knew never to mess with us, for nothing could withstand the might of our kingdom!"
But then the light died from her eyes, as she looked around the room.
"And what of now?" said Ariana, limping back towards her bed, and sitting heavily on it. "The centaurs banging on our front door, the Shadows swarming around everywhere, and Herothi remaining shut up in his tower all the time, leeching power from the world ... from me."
There was a long silence before she spoke again.
"Herod used to be an icon of good for the people," she said. "He would demand that the trials in the courts of Karmine were fair, for all crimes. He would order grain be sent to the villages of the Desert, who struggled with their farming. He would ensure that, pauper or prince, the people of Karmine would abide by the same laws, as was not done in the neighbouring kingdoms, with different charters for the ranks of their society.
"And then, he started to dabble in sorcery. Conjuring spirits to invoke spells, to transport goods, to repair buildings, to mine gold. He made our country rich with his magic.
"And then, well, it all went to pot. One of his spells went badly wrong one day, and the spirits turned upon their summoner, and possessed him. Furious at being bound to mortal earth, they forced evil notions into his once chivalrous head, twisted his laws of good into curses of evil. Forced him to assume an essence, as they did, so that he may be able to spread his evil across the entire land.
"The spirits were still not content. They forced him to torture me, to leech my life force, to suck all the hope and goodness out of me, to fuel their merciless rage. That is why I am kept prisoner, so he may draw upon my strength until I die, and he has conquered all of Karmine.
"And every time he killed, a Shadow was born. Made from the flesh of the victim, united with his evil essence, they served him faithfully for fifty years.
"And it was not until recently, when he tried to spread his influence into the centaurs' realm, that his essence began to dilute. Weaken. You must be the Shadow that escaped his clutches. The one that was not forced to return with him to this godforsaken place to dwell in filth and darkness. And now you have found your purpose, he can no longer reclaim the essence he has lost."
"But that means that I - I am just somebody else's dead body!" shrieked Mexii, raising her hands to cover her face.
"No, no, that is what all normal Shadows are. Can't you see that your darkness is lifting away, evaporating? When Herothi's influence is gone for good, you will be reborn as your former self, with all your old memories. It is something I wish would happen to me once in a while," Ariana added, with a sad chuckle.
"But then Mother, what must I do?" said Mexii, "how may I conquer him now the spirits have consumed so many people, have become so strong?"
"You must fight, dear one. You must fight with all the power in your stance, and all the valour in your heart. But first -" Ariana paused. "- you must take the last of the goodness in my breast that Herothi has not been able to remove from me. The memory of the one child the pair of us had together, before he was consumed by the darkness."
And Mexii felt the old woman's hands come into contact with hers. And slowly but surely, a hot, tingly feeling spread up her arms, and into her heart, and thence to her whole body. It made her spine shiver and her limbs warm, as the shrivelled old woman donated her the last of her energy.
And then it was over. Ariana slumped backwards onto the bed, finally at peace. Mexii felt buoyant, empowered, exultant. Her essence was now glowing.
The distant sounds of battle were echoing at the walls. It was time to banish the spirits. It was time to avenge the life of persecution and neglect that had been foisted on her. It was time to rejoin the Trinity.
Mexii pulled the covers over Ariana's body, as if she was merely sleeping.
"Rest in peace, Mother," she said. Then she turned to the door, a steely glint in her eye.