Alexius patted his mare's nose reassuringly even as he stared up at the imposing castle that had prompted her distress. When he'd first heard the legend he'd passed it off as a fairy tale, a moment of weakness amongst Hunters weary of the world they had sworn to protect. Surely such an impossible tale could not be real. He'd been almost ashamed that his family still believed in a myth so strongly that each new generation to learn the story was in turn sworn to secrecy.

He still didn't completely believe, but he'd exhausted all other options long ago. This was the only course left to him now, as fanciful and nebulous as it might seem. The others had fallen; the blood of the greatest warriors alive stained the earth crimson. Alexius had watched his father die, then his brother, and finally his little sister as the sickness took her. All the deaths and still no end in sight.

Then he'd remembered, caught in a hopeless despair, the moment when he'd first chosen his destiny. When he'd elected to follow in his father and brother's footsteps, and the ancient legend had been revealed to him.

You see this, Alexius?

What is it, Father?

This, Alexius, is our family's greatest weapon. In a time of great need it is said that the most legendary Hunter of all, a man who was never defeated, will come to our aid. This pendant will lead us to a castle that exists outside of time where Lucien Lacroix still lives.

Lucien Lacroix. Alexius pressed a hand to his chest, making certain that the pendant was still there. It had taken him nearly three weeks to figure out where his father had hidden it, and several days more to puzzle out how it worked. Now he was here, looking up at what was unmistakably a Castle of Darkness. If his father's tale had been right, the castle in which the legendary Lucien Lacroix still lived.

Most Hunters nowadays believed the legend of Lucien Lacroix to be mere myth. Something to inflate the Lacroix family's already-high ego. Many had tried time and again to kill the story completely, but it always persisted. Something about it simply refused to die.

Alexius had once ventured that the people needed something to believe in. Something perfect. Undefeatable. No living Hunter held that distinction, so they needed one that was something more. That was why the legend of Lucien Lacroix still flourished over the generations.

For the first time in his life, he hoped it was true. If ever there was a time to call upon the greatest Hunter in history, it was now. If the legend was false, if he failed here...

Shaking his head, Alexius dismounted and tied his horse to a nearby tree. She would go no further, he could see that, but he would need her again when he returned. If he returned. He had no idea what he was walking into. Like all legends, this one was a little vague.

"Well, 'lexius, time to prove just how big of an idiot you are." Keeping one hand lightly on his sword, the other reaching beneath his shirt to draw out the pendant that had led him here, Alexius Lacroix, last of that line, walked slowly toward the castle's main gate.

It was partially ajar, swinging open soundlessly when he pushed on it. The courtyard reminded him quite strongly of those of human nobility, save for the fact that all the statuettes and hedges had been shaped like fantastic creatures rather than in the form of mortal men. There were a few places where things seemed to be worn or faded, but for the most part it was in considerably better condition than any dark castle he'd ever been in before.

A sound drew his attention and he walked until he could see behind a tall hedge, blinking at the sight that awaited him. Three large wolves, werewolves, he was fairly certain, were lined up on the grass with small, vaguely humanoid creatures on their backs. One he recognized as an imp, another a goblin, and the third escaped him entirely. Nearby was a voluptuous woman wearing strategically-placed ribbons and nothing else, holding what appeared to be a red handkerchief. She lifted it into the air, then released it.

With eerie howls the wolves leapt forward, streaking out across the courtyard, diving around or over obstacles and disappearing behind a tall stone wall. Alexius stared for a long moment, unable to quite accept what'd he'd seen, during which the woman spread her leathery wings wide and leapt into the sky. A few moments later she was gone, following in the same general direction that the wolves had gone.

Alexius felt more lost than ever. Everything he'd ever learned as a Hunter told him that what he'd just seen was completely out of keeping with the way such creatures should behave, and yet he couldn't deny what his eyes had witnessed.

Still somewhat dazed, he made his way back to the front doors of the castle, pulling on one firmly to get it to open. With a slight creak of protest the massive oaken door swung outward, leaving him staring into a long, elaborate hallway.

Squaring his shoulders, Alexius stepped inside. Almost immediately there was a slight growl to his left and he turned to find himself face to muzzle with the largest hellhound he'd ever seen. "Wonderful," he muttered to himself, taking a step back. "Ah, hello there," he said, trying very hard not to be nervous. "I'm looking for someone... Um, that is, please don't eat me..."

The hellhound eyed him for a long moment, measuringly, then slowly lay back down on the floor. Its tail swished back and forth idly, but otherwise it didn't move. Alexius breathed a quiet sigh of relief and inched past it, not removing his hand from the hilt of his sword until it was long out of sight.

"Remind me never to do something this stupid again," Alexius muttered to himself, choosing turns at random until he finally came across a very small garden. For a moment he wondered why a castle of darkness would have a flower garden of all things, then he took a closer look and laughed quietly as he realized the blossoms were those of foxglove and nightshade. Both deadly.

Reassured that the proper order of the universe hadn't completely deserted him, Alexius resumed his trek through the castle hallways, passing more creatures of darkness than he really cared to think about. The ones he was fairly certain could speak his language he asked directions of, working his way up to a second-floor ballroom before stopping short.

There was someone waiting for him. A human someone, he thought at first, then as he took a second look he realized that no human ever born had possessed hair the color of flickering flames and fresh blood. He thought uneasily a moment of that which he'd come seeking aid against, then ruthlessly shoved that thought from his mind.

"Ah, hello..." Alexius said hesitantly, cursing himself for sounding like an idiot.

The flame-haired boy (man?) blinked at him, then smiled slightly. "Welcome, descendant of the Lacroix, to my castle. I am Ciaran."

Alexius blinked in surprise. "How did you know I was..." He snapped his mouth shut. Could he possibly look any more like a moron?

Ciaran smiled cheerfully. "You are wearing my pendant. None but one of that line would be able to make it work. Not a difficult thing to guess."

"Your pendant?" Alexius started. "But it's not... It was supposed to be..."

"Hmm?" Ciaran appeared momentarily bewildered, then laughed. "Oh, of course. Forgive me." He walked gracefully across the dark, hardwood floor, stopping in front of Alexius and reaching up to gently touch the pendant where it hung around his neck. "I meant it was mine in the sense that I created it, and it is my power that calls to it. However, it is not me that you came here looking for."

That was much too close for any creature of darkness to get to him while he didn't have his sword out, even if Ciaran did seem to be more or less harmless. Alexius fidgeted and took a step back, feeling like a fool even as he did so. "Ah, no," he confirmed. "The man I am looking for is, ah..."

"Lucien Lacroix," Ciaran finished for him. "Once the greatest Demon Hunter to live, and a distant ancestor of yours. From his brother's line you are descended, Lacroix child." Ciaran smiled. "Will you grant me your name?"

"Alexius," Alexius replied, feeling like it was all very surreal. "Who... what are you?"

"You probably wouldn't believe him if he told you," a new voice rang out, strong and confident as its owner strode calmly across the floor, thick leather boots making a muffled sound against the hard wood. "Not that anyone would blame you," he continued, stopping next to Ciaran and looking Alexius over carefully. "Nobody ever believes Ciaran's a Lord of Darkness when they first meet him."

It was - almost - like looking in a mirror. This man's hair was as dark as his, though straight where his own held a hint of curl, only perhaps an inch taller than Alexius and body sculpted and toned with the kind of muscle that Alexius might one day have if he didn't get himself killed first. His eyes were the only place he really differed, a deep sapphire blue when his own were grey-green, the left only narrowly missed by a long jagged scar that was the only thing marring his strikingly handsome face.

"You..." Alexius stared. "You're..."

The man grinned. "Lucien Lacroix, Demon Hunter, at your service." He laughed as Ciaran poked him in the ribs. "Ex-Demon Hunter," he amended.

The weight of what he had come here for abruptly came crashing down upon Alexius and he knew some of what he was feeling had to be showing on his face because of the way Lucien and Ciaran looked at him. Before he could summon a response, however, yet another voice made its presence known.

"Former Demon Hunter, full time nuisance."

All three turned at the sound, Alexius's eyes widening at the sight. This man was most obviously not human. His skin and hair were jet black, both sporting numerous feathers, and enormous glossy black wings arched from his back. He was not any sort of mythical creature Alexius had ever heard of, though he did bear a vague resemblance to the nearly extinct crow demons.

"Funny, Karai, very funny," Lucien retorted, miming a punch a the tall bird man's arm. Behind the bird man another man followed, this one closer to his height with blond hair and shockingly pale skin.

"Vampire..." Alexius identified, tensing.

The vampire arched a brow, looking rather nonplussed. "Hello to you too," he drolled.

"Oliae, be nice," Ciaran chided gently, turning to Alexius once more. "I believe you were going to explain to us the reason you have journeyed so far, Alexius."

"Yes, I..." Alexius blinked as five chairs suddenly appeared from nowhere, jumping back slightly. The others, obviously far more accustomed to the castle and its eccentricities, merely seated themselves and regarded him patiently. Or not so patiently, in the vampire's case.

Gingerly perching on the padded wooden chair, Alexius drew in a slow breath. "Right. Well, about two years ago a demon of some sort moved into the area and set up shop. The nearest Demon Hunter was over a month away and occupied with a problem of his own, so everyone just kind of ignored him for a while. That turned out to be a very bad thing to do because the castle he'd taken over had once belonged to a reclusive enchanter. As far as anyone can tell, something in the enchanter's castle gave this demon access to the powers of one of the Seven Lords of Darkness."

The bird man, Karai, started. Lucien frowned, while Ciaran merely looked unhappy. The vampire's expression didn't change, but then he'd been scowling to begin with.

"All the Hunters who have gone in after him were either sent back in pieces, or never came back at all, including my father and brother. The taint of his power spreads by the hour, carrying with it a terrible sickness. All those who have come in contact with it have perished in horrible pain. By this point, no one can get anywhere near the castle at all."

A long silence met his words, then the bird man leaned forward, his fingers steepled together as he frowned thoughtfully. "Such a thing... it should be impossible, without the High Lord's willing assent... and all records of how to do so were supposedly destroyed centuries ago."

Alexius sought out and held Lucien's eyes. "I know I should not ask this of you, for surely there is no man alive who can confront one of the Seven Lords of Darkness and win, but... you are our last hope."

Lucien turned to Ciaran then, their fingers threading together as their eyes met, needing no words to convey their thoughts and feelings. He wondered how such a thing had come about, a Hunter and a Dark Lord, but he could not begrudge them what they had. Envy, perhaps, but that was all.

Finally they turned to face him again, Lucien slightly hesitant, Ciaran more determined. "We will accompany you," the slender redhead announced firmly.

The remaining two started. "What?!" the vampire sputtered as the bird man protested, "Master! You cannot..."

Ciaran rolled his eyes, turning to eye the two who had leapt to their feet. "You call me Master and then tell me what I can and cannot do. I do wish you two would make up your minds."

Karai and Oliae exchanged glances, then slowly Karai sighed. "Yes, Master. Of course... but please allow us to accompany you on this venture, if you insist upon going."

Alexius blinked. So did the vampire. "Karai," Oliae pointed out dryly, "Just how am I supposed to go anywhere during the daytime?"

"We travel by night," Ciaran announced, "Amongst other things that I should go prepare. I suggest everyone collect what they need while I see to our transportation." He snagged Lucien's arm, pulling the man with him. "Alexius, we shall meet you in the courtyard in, mmm, one hour, I think." Ciaran looked up at Lucien thoughtfully. "Yes, one hour."

Before he could blink they had vanished completely, leaving Alexius alone with the two more intimidating castle residents. Karai and Oliae exchanged glances, sighed, then the vampire became a bat and both flew out through an open window.

He'd followed the pendant, found the castle, and met the legendary Lucien Lacroix who had agreed to help. So why did he feel as though his whole world was spiraling out of control?

It took Alexius most of the allotted hour to find the courtyard again, as few of the castle's creatures spoke his language and of the ones that did, half of them had no idea where the front doors were and the other half gave him the most convoluted directions he'd ever heard.

As it was, both Lucien and Ciaran were waiting when he arrived and the other two appeared shortly after.

"Nightmares?" Oliae asked, arching a brow at the two dark half-horses that stood quietly near Ciaran.

Ciaran laughed. "One nightmare," he corrected, patting the appropriate creature on the nose, "And one nightstallion. They have agreed to carry you and Lucien to our destination."

Oliae eyed the half-horses, rather nonplussed. "I can fly, you know..."

Ciaran shook his head. "Not fast enough, I fear. The night-runners can run as quickly as Karai can fly, and they do not tire. If it becomes necessary..." He left the rest unspoken. If they had to flee, best to do so with the greatest speed possible.

"You're going to ride that broomstick of yours, aren't you?" Lucien observed, rather amused, as he swung up onto the back of the midnight black stallion.

Ciaran grinned. "Of course. I have completely recast the spell upon it to account for the greater speed and longer flying time that will be necessary, and I will not have to steer." He beamed. "I have spelled it to follow Lucien."

The three who knew him shook their heads, while Alexius reconfirmed his belief that they were all completely insane. Particularly when Ciaran did indeed brandish a battered-looking broomstick and seat himself upon it, rising slowly into the air.

"Well?" he asked, "Shall we?"

Lucien reached down and hauled Alexius up behind him on the nightstallion while Oliae mounted the nightmare in resignation. A beat of heavy wings signaled Karai's take-off, then they all moved out to where Alexius had tethered his mare. She was a bit unnerved by the night-steeds, but settled down well enough once Alexius was on her back.

He led the way, casting occasional glances skyward, but it seemed that the two overhead had no trouble following them even through the thick forest cover. Apparently the broomstick really could track Lucien.

It took them five nights of solid travel and two spells cast upon his mare to strengthen her endurance before they reached the area where the demon held sway. Ciaran had been cheerfully teasing Karai about his constant spats with Oliae when quite unexpectedly the raven god cried out in pain and dropped like a stone from the sky.

Though startled, Ciaran reacted almost immediately, zooming downward after his friend and catching Karai before the raven god struck the barren earth. He lowered them slowly to where the three equines had stopped, crying out in dismay as he saw that both Lucien and Alexius had fallen from their saddles and lay unconscious on the ground.

Oliae seemed to have fared slightly better, though the vampire was hunched forward and clutching his stomach. "I think... I am going to throw up..."

Once Karai was safely on the ground, Ciaran murmured the sharp words of a minor protection spell. Oliae recovered first, still looking a little green as he slipped off his nightmare and went to assist Karai where the raven god was sitting up slowly and holding his head.

Lucien awoke next, grimacing, and cast Ciaran a pained glance. "That's something I have no desire to repeat," he muttered. Karai seconded him with a rather colorful oath, and Oliae nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"It seems as though the demon's territory has expanded again," Alexius mumbled, looking drawn and pale. "That was severely unpleasant."

"The miasma of the demon's influence has indeed spread far," Ciaran confirmed quietly. "I did not think to shield against it before, but I have done so now. Are you all right?" He directed the last to Lucien as his lover leaned against him in exhaustion.

"I think so," Lucien replied, "Though I'll be glad when we stop for the day."

Ciaran nodded, casting an eye up at the cloudy night sky. "I think dawn is about two hours off. Can you ride until then?"

In response, Lucien resumed his seat in the nightstallion's saddle, though not nearly as gracefully as he usually did. A moment later, Alexius followed suit.

Karai hesitated. "I..."

"You can ride with me," Oliae said gruffly, climbing ungracefully back into his saddle. The raven god eyed the nightmare for a long moment, then sighed and climbed up behind his vampire lover.

Ciaran rose a few feet above their heads on his broomstick, but no more than that. "I will remain close, from this point onward," he said quietly. "We will not be taken unawares again."

The going from then on was slower, as hideous creatures had taken over the land and attacked the travelers regularly. Ciaran winced at each resulting death but did not make a protest. The safety of his companions remained crucial.

When at last they beheld the castle itself, even Ciaran felt a little ill. The outside facade had been warped by the powerful magics within, twisting and turning in on itself in a manner that could not be looked at for very long. Getting in proved to be easier than expected when Oliae demonstrated a vampire's impressive strength by ripping the doors clean off their hinges.

Inside, it was deserted. There was a heavy, rancid smell that worsened the further in they went, and nobody wanted to know where it originated. Unfortunately, the dark stains on the floors in several places served as fairly telling evidence.

They'd found a large, circular stone room somewhere near the middle of the castle when the demon finally appeared. He was fairly typical of the kind, stocky with dark red, almost black hair and sharp horns. Unlike normal demons, however, he oozed dark power.

"How did you get in here?" the demon demanded, fire flaring up all around him in response to his temper. "You should be dead."

"Lucky for us," Lucien replied calmly, unsheathing his sword and pulling a smaller dagger from his boot, "Your magic is lousy."

The demon hissed, hands shifting into claws as it stared at him. "Hunter... you will not touch me, filthy Hunter. I will rip off your legs and feast upon your entrails while watch, little mortal."

Lucien rolled his eyes. "What is it with evil demons and spouting off stupid threats?" he asked aloud, then ducked as the demon hurled a ball of fire at him.

"Would you please try not to piss off the demon quite so badly?" Alexius asked, circling around behind it, his own weaponry long since drawn.

"Not going to happen," Oliae snorted. "Lucien's mouth is almost as bad as mine."

Karai arched a brow, spread wings making him seem even larger than he was. "I like your mouth."

Oliae flushed. "Karai!"

The floor shook and more flames appeared, along with a sickening black ooze that reached out for them. A moment later they vanished, much to the surprise and fury of the demon who had summoned them.

"How? Who? How dare you!" he sputtered, hurling rapid balls of fire at the five of them. "That's impossible! No one can counter the power of High Lord Baharazel!"

Karai scowled. "Baharazel? Why would Lord Baharazel aid such a worthless creature as you?" he scoffed.

The demon smirked. "Because I can free him from Hell and grant him full passage into this world."

They all started. "That's... you can't set one of the Seven Lords of Darkness loose on the earth!" Alexius exclaimed, his sword dipping a moment in surprise. The demon took the opportunity, vanishing and reappearing behind Alexius and plunging its claws into his shoulder- only to scream in pain as Lucien, having anticipated just such a maneuver, sliced clean through the demon's wrist with the blade of his sword.

Furious, the demon turned its full wrath upon him, throwing one thing after another at the Hunter who only barely managed to counter them all. Karai and Oliae attempted to flank them, but were driven back by the fury of the demon's attacks, not all of which Ciaran managed to counter in time.

Then abruptly Lucien stiffened, the point of a long, sharp tail sticking out of his stomach. He hadn't been watching for it as the demon hadn't had it before. The demon smiled cruelly as it withdrew its tail and prepared for another strike.

It never got the chance. Ciaran's agonizing cry of "Lucien!" rang out through the room, driving everyone to their knees including the demon. Between one breath and the next he was at Lucien's side, helping his lover to the ground and murmuring every spell of healing he knew. Not an easy thing, for one who walked in Darkness, but then Ciaran had never been your typical Dark Lord.

"What..." the demon hissed, trying to regain its feet, "What did... stupid Hunter..."

Ciaran looked up and the demon blanched, taking in involuntary step back. His eyes blazed, not their usual soft grey, but a searing, fiery red. "For that," he said quietly, "You will die."

Flames roared up, but not the reds and oranges of normal flames. These were black as midnight, blacker even than Karai's feathers or the night-steeds' coats. The demon screamed as they touched him, batting uselessly at them before they flared up, concealing him from view. A few moments later they died, and the demon was gone.

"Lucien," Ciaran called softly, urgently, "Lucien..."

The Hunter made a pained sound as he sat up, leaning heavily on Ciaran to do so. "I just lost my record," he muttered.

Ciaran blinked, then laughed softly. "Trying to take on the powers of Baharazel would be a bit much for anyone, I imagine," he pointed out.

"Not, apparently, for you..." Alexius observed, gritting his teeth as moving pulled at the wounds in his shoulder.

"No," Karai agreed thoughtfully, "Not for you, Master."

"Which still begs the eternal question of who the hell your glorious father was, that you ended up-"

Oliae's snappish words were cut off by a sharp crack and a ripple of power, then a tall man appeared suddenly in the place that the black flames had been only minutes before. He looked around curiously, blinking as he spotted them.

Ciaran drew in a sharp breath. This man's hair was the same color as his, down to the illusion of flickering flames it gave when he moved. He was tall, almost as tall as Karai, and had the spiraling horns of a demon, but otherwise the resemblance was uncanny.

"... all right, that I was not expecting," the flame-haired demon said, staring at Ciaran.

"Who are you?" Karai asked, frowning. The demon glanced at him, glanced again, looking a bit startled, then laughed.

"And the raven god Karai too... Quite a collection we have." He grinned, showing rather sharp-looking teeth, and bowed mockingly. "Azragael, of the Dark Realms."

Everyone started. Alexius frowned slightly. "That's impossible. Azragael, like all the other Lords of Darkness, can't leave Hell."

Azragael smirked. "Close, but not quite. Two of us are strong enough to leave, though Lurizal never does. Too busy lording over the inner circle. My domain, however, is the closest to the edge of the darkness. Leaving is difficult, yes, but not impossible."

"Well, that explains Ciaran," Oliae stated dryly.

"Ciaran?" Azragael asked, looking at the man in question. "That would be you, I take it?"

Ciaran nodded mutely, blinking several times in confusion. At his side Lucien sat up a little straighter, frowning. "No offense, Azragael or whoever, but what are you doing here now?"

Azragael laughed again. "I came to investigate the sudden flare of dark power that originated in the human world, but echoed back into the Dark Realms with enough force to destroy one of the Seven. I was under the impression that it would take either myself or Lurizal to do so, but now I see what happened..."

"Ciaran had a temper tantrum?" Oliae offered, wincing as Karai hit him. "What?" he muttered. "It's accurate."

"I had no idea that anything had come of that night," Azragael continued, walking slowly around the still kneeling Ciaran to peruse him carefully. "The question is, what do I do with you? It's obvious that you've inherited my power, which then makes you a Dark Lord and thus technically not supposed to leave Hell, but then you also have human blood as well..." He stopped, scowling. "Not to mention you just eliminated one of the Seven. You should probably return with me to the Dark Realms to take his place, but-"

He broke off, blinking, as Karai and Oliae abruptly placed themselves between Ciaran and his father at the same time that Lucien hefted his sword threateningly. "Do not even consider it," Karai hissed, feathers puffed up to the point where he appeared to have almost doubled in size.

Azragael looked a them all for a long moment, clearly startled, then smiled ruefully. "Well then. If the Trickster himself is willing to threaten a Lord of Darkness..." He shook his head. "I know nothing about you, or Baharazel's unfortunate demise, and I am now going back home to clean up the mess that is undoubtedly being created in his absence. Try not to get into too much trouble, if it isn't too much to ask."

Between one breath and the next, Azragael vanished. A long silence echoed in the wake of his departure, broken eventually by Alexius.

"... well, one thing about you people, life is never boring."

Karai blinked, then laughed. Oliae snorted. Lucien chuckled softly, wincing as the movement pulled at his half-healed wounds.

"You are welcome to stay with us at the castle, if you wished for a 'never boring' life," Ciaran offered, smiling softly.

Alexius considered for a long moment, brow creased faintly in a frown. "There are a few things I need to take care of in the human world," he said slowly, "But perhaps later, if the offer still stands..."

Ciaran smiled.