"Are you this is a good idea, Sand?" Marcus asked as they walked through the Great Hall on their way to the library. "You know what Aldanon is like once he gets going."
"Sadly, dear boy, he's our best chance, even if understanding him can be an exercise in futility at times," the wizard replied. "I thought we'd see him first thing this morning and get it over with." The moon elf gave an exaggerated shudder. "Then the rest of the day is downhill, right?"
Marcus chuckled at his friend's assessment of the situation as they walked into the library. Aldanon hearing them enter, looked up and smiled. "Oh, well met, well met... I say, there sure are a number of visitors dropping by of late."
"Ah, Aldanon... I heard you had found something we'd want to hear, since it will undoubtedly put our lives in jeopardy soon enough," Sand observed dryly.
"Well, yes, I do have news... you see, I've made some progress on finding a way to breach the Claimed Lands and enter the Vale of Merdelain... one of three tall, but not impossible challenges solved, really," the sage replied.
This should be interesting, Marcus thought. Though I'll regret asking soon enough. "Tell us about your breakthrough, Aldanon."
The old sage's expression brightened. "Well, you see, you won't turn into zombies once you enter the Vale of Merdelain, which I think is quite a good omen."
"Omens aren't good by definition, Aldanon," Sand said, shaking his head.
"Oh, of course they are. Especially with a little milk and duskwood jam," Aldanon replied, seemingly oblivious while deflecting the moon elf's cynicism. "But, you see the life-draining effect of the King of Shadows isn't stronger in the centre, as I expected... it seems to be strongest at the edges of his territory, where it spreads outwards. So while you couldn't walk there, if you could hop over the wall so to speak, then that would give you your best chance at striking at the King of Shadows."
Marcus frowned a little. "Why do you suppose that's the case?" he asked, thinking it over in his mind.
The old sage paused a moment. "I am not sure, only that it is true, the King of Shadows' hunger is less at the Vale and stronger near the border of the Claimed Lands. It may be because he's already drained the life from the Vale outwards. There is more life around the edges, so maybe that's where the effect is concentrated... kind of like the delicious icing on a foul dark cake," Aldanon explained. "Getting there, you see, is the problem. To do that, we'd need to create a portal, and then tell that portal where to create its other end." The sage chuckled lightly at his analogy. "Can't just have it appear anywhere, you know, it has to appear in the Vale."
"And how would we do both of those things?" Sand challenged him, knowing this was where things were going to go pear shaped rather quickly and the fat end usually fell against them.
"Well, when Garius invited me to this Keep..." the sage began.
"Kidnapped," the moon elf corrected without thinking.
"Yes, yes." Aldanon waved dismissively. "When Garius invited me, one of the tomes he had me translate was a fascinating work called the Tome of Iltkazar."
"WHAT!" Marcus raised his voice. "You only tell us this now?" No wonder neither Luskan nor Neverwinter can find it.
"So Garius does have the Tome," Sand mused aloud, not all that surprised. "I had feared as much." The wizard hoped that it wouldn't be the case, but ever since Torio told them that Garius had stolen the tome from Ruathym, he knew his fear to be true.
"Yes, he was using it to transport legions of blade golems to and from the Vale of Merdelain." Aldanon seemed taken aback by the harbourman's reaction. "There's no reason we couldn't use the Tome to create the same portal... and use it to hop into Merdelain, as if we were golems." The sage paused. "Except that Garius... or one of the Shadow Reavers... has the tome. And is probably using it to control the golems."
Marcus let out a slow, controlled sigh. "So, in other words, we have to find and kill something that is all but immortal in the hopes that one of those blasted things is carrying the tome?" the harbourman asked. "Wonderful," he muttered sourly.
The old sage nodded. "Yes, but that's a minor inconvenience, one of many which I'm sure you'll be able to overcome."
The harbourman blew a large raspberry out of pure frustration. "Right, Sand, we are leaving," he said, turning on his heel.
The moon elf managed to keep a straight face. "Right behind you, my boy. Lead on!"
"I see the moon has been at your back. You look well, Marcus, and I understand that congratulations are also in order. May the two of you have many happy years together," Daeghun said as the harbourman approached him in the courtyard.
"Daeghun?" Marcus was surprised to see the ranger he had called father. "It's been a long time, and wishing me well is not why you're here."
"True enough," the wild elf replied mildly. "The Mere has grown dark and many villages needed help in leaving before it was too late." He scanned the far tree-line and continued, "I have sought the scent on the breeze, to learn of the dark hunter, the King of Shadows. More can still be learned in the Mere, but I have discovered something and had to tell you at once."
The harbourman frowned. "I don't like the sound of this. Tell me what exactly?"
"I heard one of the scouts was asking about me..." Elanee glided up to the two men. "Oh, well met. You are Daeghun, are you not?"
The ranger nodded. "I am Daeghun, yes. And you are Elanee, of the Circle of the Mere."
"Once of the Circle, yes. What do you want?" the druid replied, looking worried.
"This concerns you both. As I hounded the trail of the Dark Hunter and his minions, I came across something I thought lost. The druids of our lands, the Circle of the Mere, still live." Daeghun paused to look at each of them in turn. "Though after what I saw, perhaps live is not the right word."
Elanee shook her head. "That is impossible. You are mistaken, you must be," she said flatly. "If they were alive, I would know."
Daeghun was grim faced as he continued his tale. "I can only venture to the swamp for brief periods of time, the reeds and waters feast on the living now. I followed the druids, and they had a ritual I think sustained them, even in the Claimed Lands."
Elanee's eyes had gone wide. "The Circle... they must have found a way to restore part of the Mere, keep it from the influence of the shadows," she said, not truly wanting to believe. "If so, we need to find them. They can tell us more about what is happening in the Mere than anyone... and if we can get them to ally with us, we may even be able to stop what the King of Shadows is doing to the land itself." Part of Elanee knew she was getting ahead of herself, but the thought of not being alone was too much to ignore.
"Elanee, I don't want you getting your hopes up," Marcus was worried. "Something about this just doesn't seem right somehow."
The druid nodded slowly. "I know, Marcus, but if they are somehow alive..."
"We'll go look and see. It's the only way we'll know for certain what is going on," the harbourman agreed with her in principle.
"That was my thought as well. Thank you for understanding," Elanee said, uncrossing her arms and smiling.
"Then you must make haste at once, if this is your course of action," Daeghun concluded.
"Thank you for bringing this to us, Daeghun," Marcus said.
The wild elf waved a hand dismissively. "No gratitude is necessary. We are at war, and it must be done. As for now, I have other duties in the defence of the Sword Coast and this Keep and I must see to them," Daeghun turned on his heel and walked away.
"Your foster father's not one for showing emotion, is he?" Elanee said, sounding slightly offended. "It's difficult to see how he raised you... and you turned out so different," she observed dryly.
Marcus looked away. "I can only imagine how the attack on West Harbour played out. It changed him. But the one thing I always knew, he cared. In his own way. He let me make my own way… some would call it neglect. I don't." He seemed angry at the admission.
"Regardless, we need to find the Circle, but as for reaching the location, that could be... difficult," the wood elf said, steeling herself for the task ahead.
"Ah... I thought I heard the cries of a damsel in distress. Someone had to fill Shandra's role, eh?" They hadn't seen the ranger's approach
Elanee let out an exasperated sigh. "Bishop, you really need to stop spying on others," she crossed her arms as she spoke. "And your sense of humour is dreadful," the wood elf added.
"My dear, with you around, it pays to be extra watchful," the ranger replied. "I like to keep an eye out to make sure you aren't trying to play our leader for a fool..." Bishop rounded on her, "and because you don't always fasten your robes as tightly as you should, sometimes I catch a glimpse of other... secrets," he finished with a knowing leer.
Marcus rolled his eyes at the ranger's remark. Bishop was still Bishop.
"I'm surprised you even care, Bishop," Elanee shot back, a fine eyebrow raised. "And don't you have Malin to ogle now?" the druid inquired archly.
The ranger just grinned. "Surprises and me travel together, you should know that by now. For one of my surprises, why don't you show me on the map you have there where your druid friends are?"
She resisted the urge to refuse. It would only encourage him "They're in the Mere... along the north-western reaches, near the settlements the orcs attacked many years ago during their incursion into Neverwinter," Elanee replied.
Bishop looked mildly surprised. "I suspected that might be one of the places... as for the incursions, it wasn't just orcs. That's near an area the King of Shadows isn't likely to have claimed... yet. Might be a good staging area to look for your dead druid friends."
"Daeghun says they're alive," Elanee said defensively.
"Yeah, maybe for now. Still, if you want to go, I can guide you to a safe port on the edge of the marsh," Bishop's arrogance irked her.
"Alright... that would be welcome," the druid agreed, uncertain of the ranger's motives.
"Are you sure you're feeling alright? Did you just offer to help, Bishop? I'm not sure I heard you right," Marcus asked, his sarcasm obvious.
Bishop flashed the harbourman a winning smile before he became serious. "I don't think this is something we should let lie, either. And it doesn't sound like we've got much time. Something tells me those friends of yours may have to move around a lot if they want to avoid the shadows."
"Yes, you are probably right," Elanee agreed.
"Alright then, I'll set out now. I'll start scouting the path, and join up with you only when need be. It'll save us all a lot of time," the ranger said, ready to leave.
"Um, pardon me, Captain, but if I could just, er, have a moment of your..." A shabbily dressed, malnourished man came running up to them.
"Oh no, not this guy again," Marcus muttered, recognising Khralver.
Bishop smiled evilly. "May I, Knight-Captain?" The ranger had heard all about Sydney Natale's inept Luskan lackey.
"By all means, please do," Marcus replied, stepping back to watch the show.
Bishop turned on Khralver, drawing the skinning dagger Neeshka had returned to him months ago. "If you don't want a dagger between your ribs, I suggest you ask for alms elsewhere," the ranger threatened. Khralver, with eyes as big as saucers, beat a hasty retreat. "You'll have to talk to the useless twit sooner or later," the ranger said, turning back to the harbourman.
Marcus let out a sigh. "I know and I'm not looking forward to it. After all, he works for Sydney Natale and it's what she wants that's got me worried, as it's not likely to be anything good."
Bishop nodded in understanding. "I can say from personal experience that being a bit paranoid when dealing with members of the Hosttower is a good thing. Tend to live longer that way."
"Neeshka, may I speak with you?" Torio asked as she entered the formal garden which was well on its way thanks to Neeshka's hard work.
To say that the tiefling was surprised to see the former ambassador would have been an understatement. "Sure, I guess so," Neeshka replied, not sure what to make of this or how she should react.
"Thank you. I know that I am probably the last person you would want to talk to," the Luskan woman who had caused them so much trouble said as she sat down.
Neeshka snorted. "You got that right, Torio. There was a time that I would have wanted nothing more than to see you swing on the end of a rope." The tiefling had a long list in mind, but hanging was a good start. "I thought the harbour boy was out of his mind wanting to bring you here." She shrugged. "So, maybe I was wrong. Maybe you've gone a way toward redeeming yourself here," she reluctantly admitted. "So what did you want to talk to me about?"
It took Torio several moments to comprehend what Neeshka had said. "Thank you for being so brutally honest with me, even if it can be unpleasant for me to hear. It means far more to hear the truth," the former ambassador said. "I just wanted to tell you how incredibly lucky you are, Neeshka…with Marcus, I mean. Most of the younger women in the keep are envious of you. Even I… am just a tad jealous."
Neeshka blushed at her admission. "This is about me marrying the harbour boy, isn't it?"
The Luskan woman nodded and looked away. "Yes, it is."
The tiefling eyed the other woman curiously. Something didn't seem to fit. "Why would you be jealous of me, Torio?" Neeshka could understand the younger women of the keep being envious but the former Luskan ambassador? This to Neeshka didn't make a whole lot of sense. Just how old was Torio anyway?
"Would you believe womanly pride?" Torio said, looking Neeshka in the eyes. "Not long after I was brought here I'd gone to visit Sand, as he was one of the few people I knew from my time in Neverwinter. Then Marcus arrived to ask about Garius and he actually flirted with me, if it even could be called that."
Neeshka's eyes went wide. "Excuse me, he did what?"
Torio did her best not to laugh at the horrified expression on the tiefling's face. "It's nothing to fear, Neeshka. I'll tell you what happened and what I realised afterwards."
"Still, I prefer being here to being in a cell… unless you have some other plan for me that would make me long for prison walls?" Torio asked, uncertain.
"Torio, you have nothing to fear, I assure you, though you may want to stay clear of Neeshka for a while. You are far from being her favourite person," Marcus said, trying to put the former ambassador at ease.
"No, I suspect I'm not, where your tiefling consort is concerned," Torio admitted. "Tell me something, why didn't you have me executed? You would have been well within your rights to have done so."
"What point would it have served?" Marcus asked. "Your execution would have been meaningless. I'd imagine there are those within Neverwinter that would liked nothing more than to see your neck stretched. Though I have to say your neck looks fine the way it is."
Torio smirked. "Were you making a very feeble pass at me, Captain Cole?" she asked. "What would your dear Neeshka say?"
"You're not my type, Torio, you don't have horns or a tail," Marcus fired back with a grin. "And there's nothing wrong in saying that a woman looks attractive now, is there?"
The harbourman's last remark caught Torio off guard and it showed in her eyes. "You think I'm attractive?" she asked, but hastily corrected herself. "Of course I'm attractive, Captain," she said, smoothing her dress.
Marcus smiled slightly. "Yes, you are attractive, though that dress does you no favours," he said. "Just what has been Garius telling you all this time? I believe you deserve a second chance. You may be an unpleasant person, but your actions at the trial were not fully your own."
"So that's how Marcus Cole came to flirt with me, Torio Claven," the Luskan woman explained with a sad smile. "I can admit that it hurt my womanly pride to hear him say that I wasn't his type because I wasn't a tiefling, but he did at least think I was attractive. Sometimes a girl will take whatever compliments she can get no matter how unlikely their source."
Neeshka chuckled on hearing what had happened. "That's the harbour boy. But that doesn't mean he's getting away with it that easily. I'm going to tease him about this," she said, giving the other woman a devilish grin. "He's right, you know, you are an attractive woman, but as for your fashion sense, that seriously needs help." The tiefling wrinkled her nose.
"Now I think I've seen everything," Marcus said as he and Sand entered the formal garden looking for Neeshka. What the harbourman saw surprised him, for off to one side were Neeshka and Torio talking and laughing. "I'm not sure what I find more worrying, those two laughing or the King of Shadows."
"Hmm, an excellent point, my boy, but I think I'd have to say it would be Neeshka and Torio laughing together," Sand remarked with dry humour as they walked towards the two women.
"Hey, you." Neeshka grinned at her man. "See, I've made up with Torio just like you wanted."
Marcus raised an eyebrow. "Uh-uh, whatever you say, sweetheart, but I don't recall ever saying that you had to make up with Torio."
"Maybe not in so many words." The tiefling pouted. "So what's this I hear about you flirting with older women with terrible fashion sense?"
The harbourman blinked, as did Sand, then both women started to laugh again. "Typical man, he doesn't even remember!" Torio cried, holding her sides.
"I do believe I recall the incident." Sand had the ghost of a smile on his lips. "Shame on you, my boy for not remembering!" The wizard began to chuckle.
"Oh..." A look of realisation passed over the harbourman's face.
Sand quickly moved to rescue Marcus. "Much as we hate to interrupt your fun, my girl, we need you to come with us. Daeghun's told us that the Circle of the Mere may still be alive, and we need to go with Elanee to investigate." Sand wisely refrained from mentioning that Bishop was scouting ahead. Seeing Neeshka laughing with Torio was enough fence-mending for the moment.
Neeshka stood up. "That doesn't sound as if it'll end well." the worry clear in her voice.
"Somehow Neesh I think you're right. That's why Elanee will need her friends close by." Marcus said "Daeghun didn't say as much but I think what he saw out in the Mere bothered him greatly."
"Well then we better go get the tree worshiper and go see what's what." the tiefling replied with determination.