"Why did you bring her to my haven? Even though she was of my bloodline, you knew she did not have the strength to survive there," Ammon Jerro asked, not turning to face the harbourman. He was seated next to his granddaughter's bedside as he had been ever since they had returned to Crossroad Keep.
Marcus sighed as he closed Shandra's bedroom door so they could have this particular conversation in private. "It was the only way to enter your haven as well you know, and you're not exactly the easiest person to get in contact with, considering that up until you assaulted the Moonstone Mask everyone thought you were dead," he said. "If you'd taken a few moments to listen to us Shandra wouldn't be in this state."
"Of course," the warlock said with a nod, sounding bitter and angry. "And you came there to learn of the King of Shadows." Ammon sighed as he looked at his deathly ill granddaughter. "Another casualty of a war that never seems to end." There was a pronounced pause and Marcus had to suppress a smile as he noticed that the cranky warlock held his granddaughter's hand firmly in his. "I have only recently escaped my imprisonment in the Lower Planes... and since then, I have fought to re-establish my stronghold and gather my forces." Ammon looked at the harbourman sharply. "And if you had known what you were walking into and left the matter to me, she would be alive, and I would still be at my full power," he snapped. "But yes, I bear responsibility for her current situation. The Jerro bloodline now may as well only reside in me," the warlock admitted looking back at Shandra. "And the King of Shadows... he has won a victory against us this day without striking a blow," he finished ruefully.
Marcus was silent for a few moments considering what to say next. "How could we have known?" he asked. "Shandra only had vague memories to go by, and she didn't even know what was fact and what was fiction where your Haven was concerned." The harbourman sighed. "Perhaps we both bear some responsibility for what's happened to Shandra. She remembers you," he added.
Ammon looked over at the harbourman, surprised at this news. "She does?" he asked sounding hopeful as he idly stroked her hand.
"Yes, they are only vague recollections though. Apparently you held her when she was a baby and would sing to her. She would also try and pull at your beard hairs," Marcus explained, doing his best to keep a straight face.
Despite himself, Ammon smiled slightly. "That is... unexpected. Thank you for telling me."
Marcus just nodded as another silence fell between the two men. "So, what do you know about the King of Shadows?" he asked at last.
"Ah the real reason for this conversation," Ammon observed. "As you may know, I have fought the King of Shadows before. As soon as I became aware of the threat he represented to Neverwinter, to the Realms, I fought him." The warlock seemed to hesitate a moment, looking at his granddaughter as he did so. "I have made... pacts... and I am under no illusion as to what that means when I do die for good. But the price is worth paying, Shandra is proof enough to me of that," he said softly. Looking over at the harbourman, he asked, "Could you do the same for the one that you love, I wonder?"
Marcus pondered that for a time before answering. "I'm more likely to end up with a pit fiend as an in-law rather than make a pact with one. I'm not sure if that's an improvement or not, however," he added dryly.
Ammon nodded, looking thoughtful. "Yes, it would prove to be an interesting situation. It would also depend on Neeshka's grandfather. Do you know who that might be?"
"I have an idea as to who it might be, but without actually talking to the pit fiend concerned, I'm not certain," Marcus replied.
"I see. No doubt you encountered him in my Haven? Why not ask him then?" the warlock asked.
"I had more pressing matters, namely finding Shandra and you," Marcus said. "However, it wasn't until we talked to Blooden that we had any idea that Neeshka's grandfather was so close."
"Yes, Blooden would know," Ammon nodded in agreement. "No doubt she found Neeshka's breeding to be odd, though she would never have said it out loud. I will help you investigate this further when we have time to devote to it," the warlock said, before returning to the matter at hand. "I have studied the King of Shadows, tried to learn his weaknesses, and the extent of his power. And always, it has been a war with few victories." Ammon looked meaningfully at the harbourman. "Surely you know of the Ritual of Purification... I have performed part of the Ritual myself already. Without it, we cannot strike at the King of Shadows, and the battle is lost before it begins."
"I suspected it had been you when we faced the Shadow Reaver in the ruins near West Harbour." Marcus replied.
The warlock looked surprised. "So you've already faced one and lived to tell the tale. Things are happening quicker than I had expected." Ammon studied Marcus for a while, considering his next words. "I think you will find we want the King of Shadows destroyed for similar reasons, though I suspect our methods differ," he said. "I wish to stop the King of Shadows because he is a threat to not only the people of Neverwinter, but to the Sword Coast and Faerûn itself. That is all, and while simple, it is the truth." The warlock studied the harbourman. "Despite whatever onus has been placed on my actions, desperate measures were required to stop him the first time, and will be again. More can be saved as a result, and that is all that matters now."
"Kill the few to save the many?" Marcus asked, uncertain.
"Yes. An unpopular idea, for anyone who does not truly see the threat to this plane," Ammon admitted.
"Well, I need all the help and allies I can get, so I accept that for now," Marcus said at last, though it didn't mean he had to like it.
"That is the first piece of wisdom I have encountered from someone in Neverwinter's service for quite some time," the warlock said, almost smiling. "The King of Shadows was once a defender of the Illefarn Empire. While now evil and corrupt, it still holds true to its original purpose... to destroy all that threatens Illefarn."
Marcus frowned. "But the Illefarn Empire fell long ago, destroyed by its very guardian."
"Yes, ironic, isn't it," Ammon agreed. "It is also irrelevant, since the threat to Illefarn still exists. Their once-ancient enemies, the Netheril, still live on in the City of Shade here in Faerûn, and traces of Netherese magic can still be found running in the veins of many wizards and sorcerers within the Realms. The City of Shade will be its first target, then it will soon turn its attention to all those who carry magic in their blood who live in Faerûn and wipe them out, one by one," the warlock explained.
"Torm's teeth," Marcus whispered. "So what will it do once it's free?"
"Once it breaks free of its prison, it will attempt to reach the City of Shade. Its journey will turn leagues of teeming land into a lifeless road to its destination. Even worse, it will feed on everything around it to gain strength to destroy the city," Ammon said, grim faced. "The Sword Coast, the Mere, Neverwinter... all these places will be consumed. And should that fail to move you, the King of Shadows will do everything he can to murder us both." The warlock almost smiled. "After all, together, we are the only ones with a chance of stopping him."
"What's so special about the shards I keep finding?" Marcus asked. It was something he still didn't fully understand.
"The King of Shadows is no mortal creature. He is not human, more a force than anything else. But there is something that can harm him," Ammon said, settling into lecture mode. "Those shards you have... they are part of the sword of Gith. Once, the King of Shadows was driven back by githyanki warriors wielding hundreds... maybe thousands of those blades." The warlock looked the harbourman in the eyes. "But the sword of Gith is more than a simple silver sword... it can wound the King of Shadows, like it did, once, long ago." For a moment Ammon looked almost guilty, maybe ashamed. "A part of the blade got lodged in your chest, in the battle in West Harbour, when you were a child. And whether you like it or not, you are now that weapon. The more shards you gather, the stronger that weapon becomes. Together, we can stop the King of Shadows, and we must," the warlock ended with grim determination.
"I understand, so what's our next move?" Marcus asked, though he had a few ideas.
"Then we must gather our forces against the King of Shadows. Even now, his presence is extending from the Mere of Dead Men," Ammon replied seriously. "The High Road has become impassable. My scouts... now vanished... reported legions of shadows and undead stirring within the mere, and a sphere of darkness expanding from the heart of the swamp, killing all life it touches," the warlock continued, strategising in his mind. "We cannot stop him alone. With my powers weakened, my demons are no longer bound to me..." He looked at Marcus. "You will need an army to face him."
Malin looked at Bishop, shocked to say the least. "What did you just say?" she asked.
Bishop rolled his eyes. "I said we should go to Crossroad Keep. There'll be work for people like us."
"You mean you want to go back and work for the harbourman?" the half-elf asked, looking confused. "I thought you and Marcus weren't on friendly terms."
"We're not, but we can tolerate each other," Bishop replied. "The time away has given me a chance to think things over." At this Malin snorted. "Oh, laugh it up, girl of the wood. I do use my brain, contrary to popular belief," the ranger said. "Anyway, I figure we can train his scouts, we get paid well, and we don't have to be in mortal danger doing it."
Malin looked thoughtful. "That's actually smart thinking from you, for once. I'm impressed," she said. "Though if what we've been hearing is true, the part about not being in mortal danger isn't going to last long."
Bishop shrugged. "What's life without some challenge?" he asked. "So, you in?"
Malin grinned. "Try and stop me coming with you, Bishop. You're a pain the arse, but you're my pain in the arse," she said, her eyes sparkling. "You weren't so wrong about those rugged good looks you always kept bragging about."
Bishop just smiled. This, whatever it was he had with the half-elf, was new. They still argued and belittled each other, but something had changed and the ranger wasn't sure what it was. Bishop didn't know if it was love, lust or something else. What he did know was that it was nice to have female company he didn't have to pay for. Not that his little ranger had seen any half-elf action, and for once Bishop wasn't bothered. He was content with Malin's friendship.
Marcus had barely set foot within the Great Hall when Sir Nevalle strode up to him, looking worried. Neeshka had to almost run to keep up with the knight's long strides.
"I do not know if you have heard, but Fort Locke has fallen," the captain of the Nine said soberly. "Nasher has summoned both you and Neeshka. The pair of you are to report to Castle Never at once. And only you two. Your companions are to wait here," Nevalle said in a tone that said no arguing. Marcus got the feeling that the arguing had already been done and that Neeshka had won. The slightly smug smile he could see on the tiefling's face only served to reinforce his suspicions.
The harbourman nodded, frowning as he looked past Nevalle to see the weedy looking Luskan that he recalled seeing with the fat Hosttower mage. "We'll get ready and set out at once." What in the Nine Hells does he want? Marcus thought.
"Good, I will be returning with you. We ride fast for Neverwinter, and when we arrive, simply go straight to the castle. Nasher will be expecting us," Nevalle replied, looking to see what had made Marcus frown.
"Oh, um... It's you. The Captain of Crossroad Keep. I've been waiting for some time. I bring you greetings from Lusk..." Khralver was cut off before he could finish.
"Not now, the Captain has urgent business," Nevalle snapped, clearly irritated with the Luskan lackey. "Whatever you need from him can wait until he returns from Neverwinter."
Khralver just stood there looking dejected with his mouth slightly open while Marcus, Neeshka and Nevalle walked away. "Eh... yes, well. I... I'll be... um, waiting anxiously for your return," he said lamely.
With the sudden departure of Marcus and Neeshka, the rest of the group had found their way to the Phoenix Tail to talk about Ammon Jerro. Both Duncan and the bard Grobnar and taken the news of Shandra's brush with death quite badly, as both men were fond of her. It was no secret that Shandra had a soft spot for Duncan, and that she found the quirky gnomish bard entertaining.
"So Ammon Jerro wasn't dead, after all," Duncan said, looking glum. "Wish you'd known before you took Shandra into his labyrinth of demons."
Sand frowned. " Yes, he is alive... and he is much more powerful than tales ever indicated." He looked at the innkeeper. "It will please you greatly to know that Marcus feels responsible for what happened to Shandra, even if he knows he had no real control over what happen in Jerro's Haven."
"We should be thankful that Shandra is alive, if only just," Elanee put in softly. "I shall go and check on her soon."
"True," Casavir's deep voice rumbled. "He almost murdered his own granddaughter, yet he has not left her bedside since we returned to the keep." The paladin's brows were furrowed in thought. "The man is a mystery to me."
"I'm sorry, I still don't understand what went wrong... was there no way to stop Shandra from doing what she did? It just... it just makes no sense." Grobnar spoke up, sounding lost and confused.
"There is no sense to be made of it, Grobnar. Now, we must simply accept," Elanee said quietly, shaking her head sadly. "It is Marcus I am worried about, for he has to work with that man."
"The will of Ammon Jerro is broken, and this makes him dangerous... but know it also makes him of use," Zhjaeve stated. "Among my people, what Shandra did is a thing of honour, and its consequences should be honoured as well." The zerth paused a moment. "Know that Ammon is the enemy of the githyanki, and all he has done, he has done to fight the King of Shadows."
Alana was standing off to one side, observing the conversation. With everything that had happened, she'd only managed a few words with Neeshka, but the tiefling had hinted that while things at Jerro's Haven had gone to the hells, she might be closer to knowing more about her infernal bloodline. The sorceress wasn't sure how to take the news. What Alana did know was that sooner or later Neeshka was going to ask about her father and that terrified the life out of her. All because a summoning spell went wrong, she thought wearily.
"You know about the growing darkness to the south." Nevalle spoke as he, Marcus and Neeshka entered a room within Castle Never. "Crossroad Keep is our best hope to stopping the army of the King of Shadows from reaching Neverwinter," the knight said. "Your keep will play a great role in the war to come. We are still awaiting word from Fort Locke, but we fear the worst." Nevalle smiled a little as he opened a wardrobe and withdrew several items. "But the tidings are not all ill. Lord Nasher has prepared something for you, for all your efforts on behalf of Neverwinter." The captain of the Nine turned to face the harbourman. "Here, these are yours to wear, and to wear proudly," Nevalle said as he handed Marcus a ceremonial longsword and cloak. "It is the garb of knighthood, and soon Nasher shall make you a true knight in his service." The knight didn't even try to hide his smile at the utterly shocked expressions of Marcus and his tiefling consort. Back at the keep, Neeshka had pointed out that as Nasher's spymaster she could invite herself along and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. It's petty, but a little payback feels wonderful, Nevalle thought.
"As the days grow darker, the need for heroes grows greater. And Lord Nasher wants to recognize you as one of our finest," Nevalle continued, as Neeshka helped Marcus with the cloak and longsword. "It is you who have built the Keep into the force that it is. It is your name that is echoed on the lips of the men and women there." The knight smirked. "Even Sand has been known to say a kind word or two about you, and you know how hard that is. What you wear is merely a cloak until that time, but you will find it carries with it special enchantments you may find helpful. Some of the finest mages and weavers of Neverwinter have crafted these cloaks," Nevalle said. "It should afford you some measure of protection while wearing it. The rest you will discover for yourself. The ceremony will take place in the Great Hall. We have gathered together many nobles from all over Neverwinter." The captain of the Nine ushered them towards the door. "Come now, let us make our way to the antechamber outside the Great Hall... Lord Nasher awaits."
"My harbour boy, a knight?" Neeshka asked in a tone of awe, her eyes huge as they walked towards the antechamber, passing many of the assembled nobles as they did so.
Marcus was no less shocked than the tiefling. "It seems so, Neesh. Now we have to figure out if this is a reward or a punishment." he said thoughtfully.
Nevalle hid his smile, as he had much the same reaction as Marcus when he'd been knighted though the circumstances were very different. I think you'll be fine, Marcus, the knight thought.
"Though you do realise this will make you Lady Neeshka?" the harbourman asked, an odd expression on his face.
The tiefling snorted. "Only if you marry me and put a big rock on my finger," she replied flippantly.
Without saying a word, Marcus stopped their little procession and dropped on one knee, taking both of Neeshka's hands in his. He then looked her in the eyes and in a very calm voice asked, "Neeshka of Neverwinter, would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"
Shandra felt weak, so very weak, and that made the farm girl mentally frown. Should she be feeling anything at all if she were dead? Was she even dead? On some level, Shandra knew that she should be dead. She'd lost a lot of blood and what her grandfather had done to her... There was no way she could have lived through that, was there? The farm girl knew there was only one way to find out and that was to open her eyes. If she could muster the strength to open them, as they felt weighed down with lead...
Ammon noticed Shandra shift slightly in her bed. On looking closer, he could see that there was rapid movement under her eyelids. Could it be? Was she waking up? The warlock dared not hope for such a thing lest he jinx it. However, his practical side said that he should inform the wood elf druid, for he did not trust the githzerai cleric. Though he did not doubt her desire to see the King of Shadows destroyed, this was his granddaughter.
Putting thoughts into actions, Ammon rose from his chair by Shandra's bedside, regretting the fact that he would have to break the physical contact with his granddaughter. The warlock walked quickly to the bedroom door and opened it. Peering down the hall, he saw Elanee walking towards him.
"Elanee!" Ammon called, his gruff voice echoing down the empty hallway. "I think Shandra is waking up." The warlock tried desperately to keep the hope out of his voice, but utterly failed in this endeavour.
Elanee's eyes widened in shock and surprise before the graceful elf broke into a dead run.
"And so Lord Nasher shall convey the title that you have already earned, Marcus," Nevalle said as they walked towards the throne room. "It is a lengthy ceremony, but bear with it," he went on, recalling other knighting ceremonies, including his own.
The background noise of the castle was shattered by what sounded like a gong sounding at regular intervals. Nevalle's mouth fell open in shock. "Is that... gods, it's the ancient alarm! I never thought I'd live to see this day... we are under attack!" he yelled. As he spoke, the defences of Castle Never seemed to come to life as hidden portcullises slammed down, blocking any would-be attackers' way. The attackers then revealed themselves to be vampires and shades. "They are here for Nasher... we must get to him at once!" cried Nevalle, horrified.
Marcus looked sideways at the knight. "Nasher is capable of looking after himself for a bit, but what about the nobles? They don't stand a chance." Already he'd seen one noblewoman fall to the vampires before the castle guards had a chance to react.
Nevalle nodded grimly. "You're right, we need to reach a more defensible location. There is a guard room in the hall, round the corner from here. There we can make our stand. To the guard room! Follow me!" the knight yelled.
Nevalle led the way, followed by the terrified nobles. Covering them were Marcus and Neeshka with about five castle guards. The harbourman and the tiefling let their spells fly, and Neeshka had even cast fire enchantments on the guards' weapons, making them even more lethal to the undead attackers.
The onslaught of magical attacks plus the effects of enchanted steel began to take its toll on the vampires and shades, as one by one they began to fall.
At last Nevalle arrived at the guard room. "Everyone! Into the guard room now, quickly!" he yelled as the nobles rushed passed him, followed by the remaining castle guards, Marcus and Neeshka.
Nevalle dealt with the last surviving vampire before he entered the guard room and closed the door behind him. Taking a breath, the captain of the Nine turned to face the harbourman. "The castle has been sealed... it is part of the ancient defences of the castle should it ever be attacked. Something we thought would never happen. Unfortunately, it has cut us off from Lord Nasher. You must get to him, or all is lost."
"Now that the nobles are relatively safe, Neesh and I will go and assist Lord Nasher, but how do we get to him if the castle is sealed?" Marcus asked.
"Good." Nevalle replied. He wasn't even going to try and argue. "Look behind the tapestries in the hall. One of them should hold an entrance to Neverneath, the chambers beneath Castle Never."
"Neverneath?" Neeshka asked, her eyes huge as if she hadn't had enough surprises for one day. "I've heard the stories but never knew they were real."
Nevalle smiled. "Yes, Neverneath is real, Neeshka." he said. "Though it has always been closed to us, but it is said when the Castle is in danger, a path opens for defenders of Neverwinter. Make your way to Lord Nasher's side... we will try to be there as soon as the defences are lifted."