|Two Sides of the Coin
Author: WintersBlueRaven PM
DISCONTINUEDRated: Fiction T - English - Angst/Adventure - Chapters: 5 - Words: 14,162 - Reviews: 18 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 07-26-08 - Published: 08-19-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3733071
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: I don't own NWN2 or any of its storyline, plot or characters. I merely own Ashnara and her past.
AN: Another update within a month, proud of myself I am. I tried to flesh this chapter out as much as possible, and for those who don't like long chapters - I apologies now. I am afraid I had to cheat with Aldanon's dialogue (thanks NWN toolset), I can't seems to get him in character otherwise. So, next chapter will probably be quite angsty as we say goodbye to Shandra - a point in the OC I never did enjoy. School work is waying heavy at the moment so the next chapter might be delayed longer than this one.
Please enjoy this next installment and remember, reviews make me typer happy. - - - WintersBlueRaven
Her footfalls echoed around her head as she trudged through the mud back up to the Keep. A sheet of rain fell from the heavens, making it increasingly difficult to see. To top that, the blackguard had sustained a nasty gash to her leg from the battle. Unfortunately, Zhjaeve was spell-dry by the time the Shadow Reaver fell, and the group had used the last of the healing potions on Sand's burns.
With every step a spasm of pain jolted up her spin, causing her to growl. Droplets of water raced down the surface of her armour, dripping into the deepening puddles that gathered along the beaten track. She shook off the pond forming in her hair, only to feel it dampen again. The gloomy weather stooped the Keep in a foggy veil, making it loom at of the murk.
The trek back from West Harbor had been silent – on her part. The meeting with the Reaver had opened sores within the group that Ashnara would rather forget. Shandra now regarded her with a wary gaze, their trust in one another dented. The blackguard cursed her actions within the Guardian ruins; her hesitation brought more than just cracks within friendships.
Out on Astral plane Bane seethed.
Despite Bane's absence from the material plane – the blackguard sent a few choice words to Mystra – his influence lingered. One that joined his ranks could never completely leave, the dead god touch those who swore allegiance in ways that were more than skin deep. Nothing more than unwavering loyalty was demanded at every turn – not just by his priests and clerics. To doubt the Black Hand, even a little, was considered profane.
Ashnara knew what her dreams would consist of for the next ten-day until her lord saw her fitly punished. The thought brought about another round of shivers, and at the back of her mind the blackguard swore she saw a flash of a gauntleted fist.
A low hum of chatter behind her broke her train of thought. Blinking, the elf scrutinized her surroundings; the Greycloaks by the gates were now visible, their backs now straightened as their Captain came into view. She noted the gleaming chainmail that now adorned their girths with approving eyes, not missing the sheathed longswords either.
"Kana used that money…wisely it seems" Sand commented dryly, appearing at her elbow. Ashnara felt a dark eyebrow arch at his tone, before turning her attention back to the focus of the conversation. The wizard had always held the human lieutenant in similar regards as he did Nevalle. The blackguard tried her best to respect the leader of the Nine, but the aura of that law-abiding authority stung her nostrils and 'stoked the fire' – so to speak. Yet, she found it easier to work around Kana; a comrade in arms if nothing else – the elf thanked her militia training for that.
"Better safe than sorry, Sand" she replied tiredly, rubbing a cool gauntleted hand across her steaming brow. Her gash was proving more problematic than she first thought. The moon elf observed her arduous movements before frowning, something the blackguard noticed before quickly adding;
"Those tomes of yours will arrive soon enough…though I might have to chase Aldanon from them first" at this Sand wrinkled his nose in annoyance, remembering who had been in the Keep's Library during his leave. A wry smile twisted the blackguard's lips as they approached the gate, the second of the two guards present stepped forward in greeting.
"Welcome back, Captain. Lieutenant Kana wishes to speak with you immediately" the man's tone was monotonous and, to what Ashnara could see, irked. His companion was the polar opposite, his posture tense and alert, his watery blue eyes wildly aware of her. Smiling somewhat, the blackguard stood up to her full height – which amounted to the man's shoulders – and let her pitiless aura flow over him. Visually the Greycloak flinched, but within his eyes, Ashnara could see success.
"Inform the Lieutenant that I will meet with her when we have seen to our wounds" she barked, sepia eyes flashing dangerously. The Greycloak took a respective step back and nodded, gesturing to open the gate. As the metal doors groaned and creaked into life, winches grinding in their sockets, Ashnara stood aside to allow her companions through. Shandra shot her a questioning look as she passed, one that the blackguard returned with equal 'warmth'. She was in no mood to parley apologies to the fighter. Turning her head slightly, the elf gave the stationed soldiers another look.
"And Greycloak…" the man in question froze and glanced at her hesitantly, "…work on your attitude. It will serve you well if you want an early burial"
Neeshka stirred from her brooding at the sound of the main doors opening and a stout dwarven shout of "Bloody hells, is good to be in the warmth again". The tiefling swung her legs from her laid back position on the chair and staggered to her feet. A few bones complained as she stretched cat-like, yawning before scratching her neck absentmindedly. Excitement buzzed through her as she heard her companions revel in the heat of the Keep's furnace.
Crossing the landing in three long strides, the tiefling leaped effortlessly from the top of the stairs and landed with a swish of her forked tail. Her amber eyes burning profusely as she grinned down at her partner in crime. The blackguard didn't notice her at first, already being bombarded by messengers and clerks jostling each other and thrusting papers and such into her face. With a growl or two, the elf maneuvered her way through the babbling crowd and finally laid eyes on her infernal blooded friend.
A slightly manic expression climbed onto her face as she looked up at Neeshka before a grin erupted.
"Long time no see Neesh!" the tiefling jumped down the last few steps and all but leapt on the blackguard. True, it had been over three weeks since they had set out to Arvahn, including the respite they had when Shandra broke her collarbone. So it didn't surprise the elf to be assaulted by the busty fiendling, who had burst into conversation. Snippets met the blackguard's ears, Elanee had returned, Qara destroying the kitchens once again to show her flippancy. All this time, Ashnara's leg howled in protest, sending flares of searing hot pain up her offending limb. Refusing to acknowledge the wound, the blackguard grimaced and focused her full attention on what Neeshka was saying.
"-so Grobnar has had his nose in that book all week, something to do with that tin-can down stairs" she rolled her eyes in a rather adorable manner, "Then white beard in the library has been babbling on about the location of Shandra's, uh…great, great granda, you know the one" she whirled her index finger for emphasis.
That caught more than just the blackguard's attention and all of a sudden both Zhjaeve and Sand where in the tiefling's face.
"The mage has found Ammon's Haven? Well, that explains Kana's need to talk with you, Ashnara" the wizard mulled, scowling as Zhjaeve bumped into him. The gith gave Neeshka's face a thorough examination to see if she was exaggerating before stiffening.
"Know that we should head there as soon as possible, Kalach-cha" Bishop's face contorted into a look of shear exasperation. Growling, the ranger turned on the cleric.
"We've just got back, and your already contemplating sending us back out there without even a clue as to what we will be up against!" his snarling was met by a stony glare from over her veil as Zhjaeve turned her attention back to the now disentangled blackguard and tiefling.
"The next part of our journey lies there Kalach-cha, we must-" once again, the cleric was interrupted, but not by Bishop, but Shandra. Once over the shock of learning they were so close to leaving for Haven, the farmer bristled as her companions discuss the matter of her impending blood-spilling as if it were already signed and sealed.
"Wait a minute, don't you think I should have a say in this? Although, you seem quite happy to get there as fast as possible and bleed me, so what's the point in me trying?!" she fumed through clenched teeth, balling her fists as Bishop rolled his wolfish eyes. The pandemonium fell silent at her rant, and Shandra brought her storming glaze down on the blackguard.
"I kind of expected that from you, after that performance in West Harbor" Ashnara narrowed her eyes, not liking the ones that peeked around doors to see what was going on, "So much for loyalty to us, given the chance, you would have sided with that stinking corpse!"
The blackguard tried desperately to rein in her soaring temper, knowing full well the consequences of a fight in front of the whole Keep. Yet, as she met the huge eyes of Neeshka, she felt her heart thump painfully in her chest. Guilt.
"That's unfair, lass-" Khelgar began, taking a protective stance before the blackguard. The fighter reeled backwards at the dwarf's words, her eyes almost popping.
"U…Unfair…you've got to be joking…Khelgar, she was contemplating betraying us!!" Shandra through an accusing finger into the blackguard's chest, although it was a mere prod, the gesture stung. A lot. Determined not to look the fool, Ashnara growled and smacked the farmer's hand away.
Her complexion had paled greatly, due to the blood now encrusting the insides of her boots, her balance wobbly. Stubbornly, the blackguard's glare turned venomous.
"So, you think that I would choose a festering crackpot over Bane! You really think that I am that shallow that I would jump ship so quickly to join some Luskan born shit? After everything they've done to us??" her heart was racing now, her head pounding as her vision began to swirl. Shandra fell silent, her stony face now contorted with confusion. Taking a deep breath, the blackguard dropped her gaze and snarled.
"I understand my profession isn't that of a legendary hero those blasted bards sing about, and I ain't known to be particularly generous or kindhearted. But, let me tell you something Jerro" it was her turn to thrust a finger into the farmer's chest. Her eyes bore into the woman a head taller than her as if she were a child in need of dire discipline.
"I am not some cut-throat backstabber who'll jump sides when the water gets too hot. To hell with all this 'evil verses good' shit that seems to follow me everywhere! Just because I am a blackguard doesn't mean that I am going to follow every evil entity that deems itself important, so put aside whatever conventional fallacy you seemed to have pinned on me and grown up!"
Tipping sideways slightly, the blackguard leant against the wall, attracting Zhjaeve's attention. Realisation dawned across the gith's face as she took in the elf's clamminess and her lack of balance. Neeshka squeaked as she spotted the puddle of blood now pooling beneath the blackguard feet, and deftly stepped away from it.
"Kalach-cha, you are injured…why didn't you say anything?" the gith enquired, slowly peeling away the caked boot. The blackguard hissed and shot her a look, before turning her pleading gaze on Sand. The wizard rolled his icy eyes before sighing.
"Alright, I think we all have something to do" he eyed the ranger beside him with dislike, pinching the bridge of his nose in emphasis, "…like washing"
Bishop growled before stalking off back outside. The elf watched Shandra for a moment, the woman just stood there sobered by the blackguard's outburst.
"Could you do something useful, girl, instead of stand there gawking" she withdrew from her thoughts rather quickly and glowered at him. Sniffing, Sand continued "Please, push that filthy excuse of a man into the water troughs"
A joint snicker erupted from the blackguard and the tiefling, even a flash of a smile from Zhjaeve. Khelgar snorted, "Not even that would lift the stink from him, but the ditch by the gate might" his eyes glinted with an unspoken plan. Shandra couldn't help but smirk, giving the dwarf a nod.
"Might douse his ego a bit as well" Ashnara grunted as Zhjaeve pulled the remained of her boot off. Neeshka appeared beside Shandra, her tail twitching eagerly.
"This I have to see!"
For an old man, Aldanon felt as if he were twenty again.
The library around him was busting out at the seams with books. The dark wooden bookcases – newly erected – gleamed in the candle light that streamed down from their iron stands. Before him three massive tables, surrounded by furnished chairs, took the brunt of his work. Tomes lay open everywhere, piled on top of one another, parchment and scrolls littering any free space. Pots of ink, calculation equipment and beakers rimmed a large map of a mountainous region that seemed to be the focus of the whole investigation.
The group of diviners he had brought in worked relentlessly on another table, their low mutterings a gentle hum in the stillness around them. Their heads bent in concentration, some muttering incantations under their breaths, others scrying with little success. A strong smell of burning alchemical ingredients wafted around and passed the mage's nose.
"By the smell of things, my cook has been scrying rather than a group of elite diviners" he grumbled, earning a few hesitant looks as the diviners scrambled to try and get some kind of success.
A sudden creak caught their attention. The mage felt a prickle of apprehension as he thought that red haired sorceress was back for another toasting book session. Yet it quickly drained as a familiar face rounded the door and gently shut it.
Even though the name didn't jump to mind at that moment, Aldanon smiled in the elf's direction. Sand met him with a raised brow and a critical glance at the huddle of diviners. A small stack of books gathered under one arm, the wizard moved tentatively forward, sniffing the air and cringing.
"I heard you'd found that location of Jerro's Haven, but…" he eyed the table skeptically, before scrutinizing the mage himself. Aldanon's bushy white brows knitted together for a moment as he tried to place this 'Haven' business the elf spoke of. It suddenly sprung up from the alcoves in his mind and he verbalized his realization.
"Oh, I am just adding the finishing touches to the map you see" he gestured to the massive parchment pinned down at the corners to stop it curling in. Sand nodded in acknowledgement, leaving his books to one side before ambling up and studying the diagram. He had to admit, Aldanon's team had put a lot of effort into it, the detailed mountain ridges, sloping valleys and the long coastline. His slender fingers traced the area encircled in red ink. Dotted in three different places, numbered in what he thought was some kind of probability list, were the locations of Jerro's Haven.
He looked up with in disbelief, an exasperated sigh threatening to escape. Licking his lips, Sand turned and raised one dark eyebrow in the mage's direction.
"That's…interest. The last time I checked there was only one Haven" Aldanon frowned and bustled forwards toward the map. After a thorough analysis, the mage drew back, rubbing his beard as he did.
"Fascinating, really it is, but it seems I have gardeners for diviners…excuse me, uh-" the wizard groaned, and tried not to roll his eyes.
"Sand" he drawled. The mage nodded before babbling some more nonsense and proceeded to verbally clip his diviners around the heads. Allowing them to roll, the elf moved his eyes to the books he had brought. One was for mere pass time, another of Luskan origin he'd had to keep secret up until trial were Torio had spilled the beans on his previous home. Memories of the damnable trial flooded the wizard's mind, causing him to rub his temples to relieve the pressure.
Seeing the tray he required, Sand crossed the library quietly, not wanting to become involved in Aldanon's ranting. Laying the books in, he took a quick glance out the window and sighed. The weather wasn't letting up either.
"A mountain of paperwork, numerous orders to fill and mud wallowing, back breaking adventures into gods know where…oh, sweet Mystra why?!"
"Did I really contemplate it?" the elf pondered, her head resting on her clasped hands. She felt drained after her earlier outburst, but that was probably due to the amount of blood she'd lost. Beside her chair was a mound of blood stained rags Zhjaeve had used to stem the flow whilst she retrieved a couple of healing phials. Discarded and in need of dire cleaning, Ashnara's boots leaned against her bed stand.
Her head buzzed from Shandra's words, the blackguard couldn't blame her. She'd been in similar situations, the Trial, leaving West Harbor. It seemed that that both of them had much more in common than either were willing to admit.
Running a shaky hand through her tangled black hair, the blackguard got to her feet slowly. Although the cleric had told her to allow the bone to mend, Kana had sent for her and it sounded urgent. Pulling a fresh cloth from a collapsed pile on her desk, she wound it around her scarred leg before pulling her filthy boots on.
"I'll get scolded for the lack of personal hygiene, but such is life" she grinned, releasing her frizzy excuse for hair from its leather tie and buckled her greatsword to her hip. Free of her breastplate, Ashnara sighed and strode to the door and wrenched it open. The hinges creaked in protest as she pulled it shut behind her and clenched her teeth as another stab of pain shot up her leg.
Passing the war room, the blackguard headed to the lieutenant's office before rapping sharply on the wood. In her usual business-like manner, Kana appeared at the door, her armor clean and gleaming under the dull lighting. Her brown eyes widened slightly at the disheveled sight of her Captain, but snapped back to her formal attitude at the blackguard's raised eyebrow.
"Captain, good to see you have returned. I hope your quest was successful"
"To a point…yes" she replied, earning a questioning glance from the human woman, "Where to?"
"The Library, Master Aldanon has the location of Ammon Jerro's Haven" with a nod the two women walked down the empty corridor - spare the odd Greycloak – towards the Keep's Library, "You speak as if you have met…complications?" Ashnara threw her a wistful look.
"We couldn't complete the ritual. When we gained the fourth element of purification a song portal activated and took us to my old village on the edge of the Mere. The place was pillaged, and at the fifth purification statue…" she groaned and rubbed the back of her neck "…we encountered Garius"
"What…how is that even-" Kana started, bewildered.
"It will be explain in due time, Lieutenant" a familiar voice echoed out to greet them. Both looked up and found Sand waiting in the doorway to the Library. He eyed Ashnara vexed and she met his look with raised hands.
"It couldn't wait" she said simply before sliding into the library.
The party inside was larger than she had expected. Around one of the tables sat Shandra, Casavir, Elanee and a group of people the blackguard supposed were the diviners. Aldanon stood speaking hotly with one of the diviners, his face stricken somewhat. As Kana, Sand and herself entered, their conversation ended abruptly.
The mage beamed a slightly crazed smile at the blackguard.
"Ah, welcome back. I remember you; well…I think I do? You were the one with the shards, I hope…yes?"
Brow raised the elf nodded, allowing him to shake her hand.
"I'm so pleased you let me visit! The last time I was here I wasn't able to examine much to the Keep or the Library, quite a shame" he babbled, oblivious to the lost look that now adorned the blackguard's face. Shaking herself awake, the blackguard interrupted him.
"We've been to Arvahn, and have four of the rituals complete. The fifth one was…unsuccessful, so we need to know what you have found on Ammon Jerro's Haven" the mage blinked at her for a moment, and the elf swore she saw Elanee yawn.
"Oh, that is unfortunate. I occasionally return to that side project when I have the time, but to be honest it is a difficult stone to crack" at this it was Sand's turn to intervene.
"What are you talking about?! You were working on it earlier"
"I mean, it is one thing to know about a place, and quite another to find it-"
"So are you telling us you don't know where it is? Where are we supposed to go then?"
The mage seem to pause at this question, his grey eyes mulling things over.
"Let's see, you have explored the Arvahn ruins, undergone the Ritual of Purification, and gone to Old Owl Well. Although I seem to recall something regarding getting several vials of dragon's blood, and some lich dust" the whole room seemed to inwardly groan, "Then there's the three keys, bronze, silver and red platinum. The red platinum one might need to be reforged; I think one of the pieces is in Amn…or was it the Underdark??"
A sudden puff of red smoke billowed into the air and the diviners all but cheered. The company watched as the diviner beside Aldanon edged round the table and looked at their results, as smile stretching across his face. Within a few seconds, a smaller version of the huge map lain out across the table was produced, a fat red circle surrounding a mountainous area.
"Master Aldanon, here is the map with the position marked, as you requested" the chief diviner beamed, handing the map to the bewildered old man. Ashnara watched it intently.
"What is this?"
"My question exactly! What is this nonsense? I didn't ask for any map, can't you see we are having an important discussion here?" he asked indignantly, causing the diviner's brow to furrow.
"Master Aldanon, y-you requested we chart a possible location for you with the information you provided. You were correct, our group could not scry this area and it has the tell tale arcane marks you said would be there"
"So, marks of what?! Specifics please, or I'll get my gardener to run my errands from now on!"
"Y-You didn't tell us what this place was, Master Aldanon, only what to look for"
"Hmm...well, yes, I seem to recall asking for this, well done Aldanon, I say! And I do, good for me" he nodded before turning to Ashnara who looked at him as if he had grown a second head, "Wouldn't you agree?"
So after a quick debriefing of the company's last mission and a lengthy discussion of Garius's return, the group settled down around the newly drafted map. Aldanon began to explain the choice of location as Shandra eyed the map with great unease.
"Well, there were two things that I though would be essential in the Haven, secrecy and its ties to the courts of Neverwinter. Secrecy meaning a place that can not be scried, so my diviners scan a selected area based on shipments of reagents to a few obscure locations found in the courts records. Quite easy, really"
"Sure looks buried deep within the mountains" Shandra traced the contours with her eyes and frowned, the blackguard could see why.
"Well, I think its there...not entirely sure though. But if I was to guess where Ammon Jerro built his Haven I would wager it would be in the mountains" the mage began.
"It's a good source of stone" Ashnara suggested, receiving a nod from the mage, "It would make it perfect to get the materials he needed without arousing suspicion"
"Exactly, a labyrinth needs walls and mountains provide just that" the farmer snorted and glared defiantly at the map.
"Great! Can we go now, my ancestor's death filled labyrinth awaits…apparently" she grumbled in Ashnara's direction. Seeing all was in order the blackguard nodded and rose from her chair, a gesture repeated by those around her.
"We'll leave in two days, Kana, I'll need a full report on the Keep before I leave" the woman nodded before striding away. Thanking the mage, the elf took the map and followed her companions out the door. However, as they disappeared, the chief diviner stiffened.
"Master Aldanon, there was more to the map! With all that infernal magic interfering up there surely-" the diviner was cut short by the old mage.
"Oh trust me! Demons should not pose any problem to a well armed, spirited group like that. Now if you had told me that those terrible people had completed the ritual of shadows here, then I would be concerned" the mage chuckled to himself and set back to work amongst the shelves, leaving his chief diviner sighing defeated in his wake.