Now Kelemvor was gone they spent a few moments just looking at each other as they wondered what to do now the oath was fulfilled and the spirit-eater was no more. Blake decided the first thing he would do was allow the back of his neck to sweat as it had been a long time since he pulled his chainmail hood up and being forced to lower it in the Dreamscape had not helped in reality. He swapped hood and helmet for bare neck and hat and then picked up and put the gauntlet back on that he had removed to touch his soul. Blake considered putting his shield across his back on its carrying straps but for now it seemed less trouble to continue to carry it on his arm.
"You look weary little-one," Okku rumbled, "but weary in the natural way of flesh rather than the unnatural way of that curse."
"I am tired," Blake admitted, "and rather hungry, but I am glad to be able to feel that way without the curse interfering with those more honest sensations."
"Hrm, and you no longer smell as foul," Okku continued, with a sniff. "As you awoke I noticed the change and now you smell of man rather than the abhorrent foulness of that hunger."
"He certainly does," commented Gann, adding his own sniff, "and quite strongly."
Blake gave Gann a sidelong look. "Well, that may be one of our problems then…"
"It is not that bad," Gann interrupted, "so long as I remain so the breeze is blowing away from me."
"The problem, my friend, is not your delicate nose," smiled Blake, "but how much physical form the inhabitants of this city have. We know they are changed from how they were in life as Halor told Jorin they were not as easy to burn now. They didn't seem to be spirits as they left corpses rather than vanishing but the question is how much they need to eat to live or bathe to remain clean. Whether like Okku these are things they no longer require."
"More reasons than washing to take a bath, harbour-boy," Neeshka commented, winking to Blake as she buckled her cloak around her neck. She hesitated and then decided she didn't need to conceal herself and left the hood down and the cloak hanging down her back rather than wrapped around her.
"It can be pleasant to soak in warm water," nodded Blake, "even if you are soaking alone."
"Which if you and she could find privacy," Gann chuckled, "I doubt you would be."
"Well, I couldn't let him try to scrub his own back…" replied Neeshka in mock horror.
"Or his front, or his sides, or his…" Gann said, beginning to list body parts.
"Ahem," interrupted Blake. Gann turned a look of innocence on him and Neeshka wiggled her eyebrows before subsiding. "The point I was trying to make was that for us to get the chance of food and rest or to bathe we may have to depart. Though that raises the question of how and if we can depart."
"You are worried we are dead?" Gann asked.
"Not so much after you so kindly pointed out how pungent I smell, and that I am tired and hungry also suggests we travelled here rather than dying to come here. But there was no portal behind us after we passed the Betrayer's Gate so, like when we entered the Skein, we can't just return the way we came."
"You are correct," a voice said behind Blake, "you do still live rather than being spirits, though Kelemvor's gratitude would have extended to reversing even that."
"Araman?" Blake said, turning to face the speaker. "I did not expect to see you again after you left us just before we fought Kaelyn and her two siblings."
"Was very convenient timing for him, harbour-boy," muttered Neeshka.
"I could not aid you against the Wall of the Faithless," Araman replied, ignoring Neeshka's comment and passing over if he could have aided them against Kaelyn as he had against both Rammaq and Zoab. "That touched on the judgement Myrkul passed on both my brother and myself. Now however the curse is gone and I am free to speak to you again."
"To what end?" asked Blake, not sounding grateful for the chance to be spoken to again.
"Kelemvor has charged me with aiding your return to the worlds of the living. You may travel back to where you came from or to any portal in any of the worlds this plane of the dead touches."
"My barrow calls to me little-one," rumbled Okku, turning his great head and yellow eyes towards Blake, "my oath is fulfilled and now your hunger has been removed the sleep of those in my barrow, including myself, will be undisturbed by the nightmares it brought."
"Your help has been a boon," Blake said, giving Okku a deep nod of respect, "and it has been an honour and a pleasure to travel with you god-of-bears."
"It was good also to have met you," murmured Okku. "I doubt we shall meet again as the life of mortals are so brief compared with the sleep of Gods, but I hope your life is as long and as happy as you deserve for ending this curse."
"A trail seems to have been laid for a portal to follow to Okku's barrow," Araman said, eyes narrowing as he felt the magic, "and this I can use to send him there."
"Then do so," growled Okku, not wasting patience on Araman.
A shimmering circle formed in the air and expanded to touch the pavement and be wide enough for a god-of-bears. With one final rumble and a nod to all three of his mortal friends Okku padded forward into this and he and it faded from sight. Blake smiled to himself at the sight.
"It is good that the trail laid when I was placed there…"
"Or when that red-robed slime was sent there to manipulate you," added Neeshka.
"Could be used to the benefit of Okku," Blake finished. He looked to his sweetheart and continued. "The question now is where do we go?"
"Anywhere with you sounds good," smiled Neeshka lovingly.
Blake thought for a moment and then let out a combined chuckle and sigh. "I think you deserve someone less boring, my sweet," he said with another chuckle. "All the possible places we could go and, like Okku, I feel like just going home…"
"Oh yes," Gann interrupted, "from your tales of the fight against the King of Shadows and what we have done and seen together I can see how she could consider your life together tedious."
"Interesting events, boring person," clarified Blake, ignoring Neeshka's snort. "Torm blessed me with the loyalty of my Greycloaks and I have the duty to repay their loyalty and obedience with whatever aid I can still offer them. The siege of Crossroad Keep left many injured or crippled or dead and, if not for my abduction and the curse, I could have helped the former and helped the families of the latter."
"Helpfulness," Neeshka winked to Gann. "Annoying at times but mostly lovable."
"I doubt that after this delay, as essential and well-spent as it was, that anything I could do or would have done still remains to be done," continued Blake, "but if there is then I should find out what." His expression became dourer. "And if some of those things have not been done then decide if that deserves retribution against those that should have done them in my absence."
"Let us hope for the sake of your lady as well as your Greycloaks that your Keep has been well run then. The more you have to correct or avenge then the busier you would be and I think Neeshka has better ideas for how you should spend your time once you are home."
"Which is not as simple for us to reach as it was for Okku," mused Blake. "There are the two Song Portals but they are both quite a walk from Crossroad Keep and one is within the lands affected by the King of Shadows. Hopefully destroying him will have let the land start to recover but we can't be sure."
"Come on harbour-boy, a nice walk through the woods with your pretty Tiefling," Neeshka said, trying to cheer him up, "you can't say that's unappealing. Should still be nice weather on the Sword Coast. Sharing a campsite, sharing a tent, sharing kisses… or more… and without Khelgar to grumble about the walk. Or Elanee complaining if there is no road that we are trampling poor innocent grass and complaining if there is a road about how unnatural it is."
Blake smiled to her. "As you said, anywhere with you sounds good. Besides if we go to the Ruins of Arvahn then we can see if Balaur and the other spirits of Illefarn have been given peace now the King of Shadows is gone."
"And you can get all the other books from there," smiled Neeshka back to him, and happy at the prospect of loot to make her harbour-boy happy.
"You hope someone has been given peace so you can loot there?" Gann asked, a little puzzled and surprised.
"If Balaur has been given peace then he can no longer protect the books," explained Blake, "and I mean protect them from rotting away as well as protect them from being removed to another archive. And perhaps preserving those books will help balance matters with Oghma, The Lord of Knowledge."
"Why would you need to…" Gann began to ask, then he remembered how they had avenged his mother and destroyed all that could have been learnt from and all that was preserved in the Slumbering Coven's centuries old shared Dreamscape, "…oh."
"You may not have to walk," frowned Araman. "It feels like there is a portal in your Crossroad Keep."
"What?" Blake asked tersely. "Since when? How?"
"That I cannot tell," admitted Araman, "but there does seem to be something there that the magic Kelemvor is granting me for this task can connect with."
"Then I would say go to Crossroad Keep," Blake said, looking unsure, "and find out why and where and for what purpose that portal was created. The books at the Ruins of Arvahn can likely wait; the dark dry room they were in is safe enough from the perspective of mould and rot though there is the risk of looters…"
"Other than you," smiled Gann.
"Who might not treat the books as kindly," Blake continued, giving Gann a slight look. Then he closed his eyes and cursed under his breath. "Though this is all a moot point. Although I owe the Witches little I do owe Sheva Whitefeather the courtesy of telling her of our success, so I shall have to go to Mulsantir. Unless that was where you intended to go my friend?"
"I had the idea to remain travelling with you. Together we discovered my mother and avenged my father so there is nothing binding me to Rashemen."
"Very well then, your continued company will be welcome," Blake replied, adding with honesty and to return Gann's teasing, "though when we met I would not have thought I would ever say that."
"Oh, indeed, I am crushed," pouted Gann, looking woebegone, "and I thought we got on so well as I leered at Neeshka and you resisted the urge to punch me. Or resisted the urge until you had the excuse in the Sunken City at least."
"To Mulsantir then, and a long journey back to the Sword Coast."
"Kelemvor is willing to grant you one extra service," said Araman, looking as if he was in a slight trace as he communed with his God. "His priest in Mulsantir will receive a vision and inform the Witches if you are willing to leave that in his hands."
"I trust the Lord of the Dead and would be grateful for this favour," Blake replied, abandoning a second plan as Araman's words again changed the situation. "So I would spare my friends and myself the journey. Crossroad Keep please."
Araman nodded and another shimmering circle appeared. Blake started towards it and then paused. "Kelemvor said your brother was finding 'rest amongst the False souls of old'," he said, turning towards Araman. "I hope that means you and he can speak and make your peace."
"As do I," sighed Araman, "and you have my gratitude for restoring rather than destroying him."
Blake nodded to this and turned away again to step into the portal. Gann and Neeshka followed and the greyness of the City of Judgement dissolved around them to be replaced by an unfamiliar room. It was small enough that the portal nearly filled it so, after a quick glance around, Blake walked through the doorway ahead of them and into the corridor. He frowned as he looked either way and this continued to look unfamiliar. Araman had no reason to lie and Kelemvor would likely not approve of trickery in where the portal had sent them but the rooms he could see would not fit within any of the buildings Blake knew at Crossroad Keep.
"Here!" a Gnome said, bustling up from their left and the room that seemed to have sofas and benches. "Who are you?"
"I am Blake Marsh," Blake replied, turning his frown downwards. "For what purpose was this portal created?"
"If you know a quicker way to get between trading posts, or to Samarach, then I'd be surprised…" the Gnome started to say. Then a look of disbelief came to his face as he realised the name that had been give. "Wait, Blake Marsh you said, never."
"Never?" Blake asked, his frown deepening before he saw the funny side of things. His frown cleared as one corner of his mouth quirked. "I've been called less flattering things recently, but I can at least be Blake Marsh sometimes."
"When you are not 'harbour-boy'," commented Gann.
The Gnome seemed a bit unsure what to say so while he thought about this Blake took the opportunity to walk down the corridor to the doors he hoped would lead outside. This hope was fulfilled and to his relief things were more familiar there and they were home. Blake took a few more steps clear of the doorway and then paused to orientate himself.
"Changed quite a lot," Blake mused, looking around. "This building here, that seemed quite luxurious as well as large, and that one over there that looks to be a warehouse are new." He sighed and rubbed his beard in thought. "If that is a warehouse it must hold very valuable goods to be worth the trouble of placing it within the inner walls." Gann looked politely enquiring so Blake explained. "Narrow gates and trail between the walls is good for defence, not so good for carts. This is very different from my memories."
"I can see that," commented Neeshka. Gann turned his look of enquiry on her so she also explained. "Part of what we saw while we were unconscious was fighting in his memory of here."
"Though for some reason in that Dreamscape I was remembering it in its near derelict state," Blake added. He looked around again. "But even if I had remembered it how I had seen it last, and tried to make allowances for how things might have been cleaned up after the siege, it is fortunate that I didn't try a spell of teleportation when we were trapped in Mulsantir by Okku's army."
"Of course it is," Gann replied, "how could you have lived without having met me?"
"The tragedy would have been unbearable," said Neeshka with mock horror.
"That and I'd have not learned about the curse," Blake agreed, starting to walk again. "What I was thinking though was that the spells depend on a mental image and the further from reality that image is the more likely they are to fail."
"Ah, so the more they change the worse for your spell," nodded Gann before asking. "Would they have built so fast though for it to pose a true problem?"
"Probably not, I expect it would have been close enough after just those few days," Blake replied, "and closer still had I been able to find what I needed for the spell in Okku's barrow… which admittedly would have needed to include more information on how to cast those spells. However if the delay had been much longer that warehouse might have been a problem. Part of the area it covers is where Deekin's shop was and I'd have been imagining them rebuilding and repairing that rather than think they had torn it down."
"Ah, so you don't have his services to sell what you have found," nodded Gann again, "and of more immediate interest I note we seem to have drawn some attention."
"Hopefully they gave him a shop elsewhere," Blake said, responding to the first before looking around at the whispering civilians and Greycloaks.
As Blake's gaze passed over them the Greycloaks drew themselves up to attention and then returned to their duties. The civilians though continued to whisper as Gann also looked around and began to realise the scale of this Keep. The walls were quite impressive and as Blake had used the term 'inner walls' there must be at least one more set beyond these, and even if there wasn't these were substantial defences. Far more substantial than the palisade around the garrison at the Lake of Tears and they had already seen as many of these Greycloaks as there had been cots within that garrison's buildings.
"Knight-Captain?" asked a man in blacksmith's apron, his face darkened with sun and soot.
"Good to see you again Jacoby. Do I see you have this shop to yourself now?"
"That I have," said Jacoby, looking a little stunned, "the battle was enough of a shock to Edario he took the gold and the reputation he had earned and moved somewhere quieter and safer."
"Hopefully he found somewhere quiet enough for him," Blake smiled, "without it being too quiet for him to have much business. He was rather bored in Highcliff when I recruited him."
"I'd hope so to, but I don't know. He thought I was foolish to remain here but I am used to trouble after the time I spent at Fort Locke." Jacoby frowned as his professional instincts reasserted themselves. "Seems it is fortunate I am still here from the look of your armour."
"There have been a few fights…"
"Just a few," interjected Gann.
"And though some were within Dreamscapes and most of the others required only some cleaning and oiling afterwards," Blake continued, "the wear had begun to add up even before the final and rather taxing fight in reality."
"I would be honoured to provide whatever repairs you need," nodded Jacoby, almost bowing with the depth of his nod.
"Thank you for the offer, my friend, it is appreciated, but…"
"Edario knew a few tricks I'd not picked up," said Jacoby, interrupting in his zeal to ensure Blake understood, "but remember, milord, that I did deal with both armour and weapons at Fort Locke." Blake nodded but did not look entirely convinced so Jacoby continued. "Then after the battle Lord Nasher took me back to Neverwinter with him so I could speak with the armourer of his Royal Guard. With that advice and with what I learned from Edario, while teaching him a few things about weapons, I have confidence in my abilities."
"Then your ministrations to this armour would be welcome," Blake replied, reaching up across his body to drum his right gauntlet fingers on his left shoulder where there used to be a pauldron, "and I look forward to discussing what you have learned."
"I hope to do more than discuss," nodded Jacoby, his voice becoming more eager. "While you were… away… we were supplied with more of the rare materials. A month or two ago those would have been almost useless but with what I have learned and figured out about alloying and plating since then I think I could further improve how the Captain's Company is equipped."
"That is good news, and my congratulations on your success," Blake said. Then trying to not sound as if he was complaining or being ungrateful he continued. "Only the Captain's Company?"
"It is both a matter of cost and that even 'more' of the rare materials is not a huge amount," replied Jacoby. "To even equip the Captain's Company I will have to be careful and frugal in how I use them, and it is fortunate you also found so much Adamantine. It was that and the other ingots from the Dragon hoard and elsewhere that made me keen to learn how to use them better and even more grateful for the extra advice from Lord Nasher's armourer."
"Those ingots were heavy and so it did feel like I had found a lot," Blake chuckled, "but thinking on it I can understand how little that would be spread across that many men and women. Still, you and Edario did fine work even with the more common materials on the Greycloaks' weapons and armour so how much difference would this make?"
"Very little if I tried to improve the equipment of all the Greycloaks, which was why I was thinking of only the Captain's Company. But that is a matter for you to decide, milord."
"Perhaps, and perhaps not, it depends on what else has transpired in my absence. We can at least chat about things and what, if anything, can be done with the essences I am carrying."
"And your lady's armour?" asked Jacoby, "I see she has acquired some while you were missing, and it is not as battered as yours."
"She is more agile," Blake replied, "though… blast." He turned to Neeshka. "I am going to have to remember to inform that armoursmith and swordsmith that the things were delivered… all be it by the unconventional means." Turning back to Jacoby he added. "No offence intended, but you seemed busy and…"
"No offense taken," said Jacoby hurriedly. "With the success in recruiting we had before the siege I was hard pressed to keep up with supplying swords." He gestured towards Neeshka's waist. "May I?" Neeshka glanced to Blake and then drew and handed over her rapier. Jacoby let out a low whistle as he examined it. "I think I recognise the workmanship and if it was who I think then he is a true master. I can certainly clean and polish this sword, and yours milord, but forging a weapon like this would still be beyond me."
"Then I thank you again, and Gann here may need you to make or acquire a new spear for him after he left his old one broken in the eye of a Blue Dragon…" Jacoby let out another low whistle at Blake's words. "But for now I should be continuing to the main hall."
"Farewell, and Tymorra bless, milord."
"And Oghma continue to bless you with more knowledge," Blake replied, "and Gond with your smith work."
Continuing on Blake nodded as they passed. "The Inn is still there."
"Would you have doubted that?" Gann asked.
"No," Blake admitted, "it was judged so vital to the Keep that my first meeting with Master Veedle included that 'the inn has been rebuilt, what do you want to order rebuilt?' so perhaps I could have visualised its interior for the teleportation."
"As long as you were not visualising Joy," warned Neeshka, looking to Gann and adding, "the dancer he recruited."
"Two sisters," Blake expanded as they climbed the hill, "both of similar age and very similar appearance, but one was a dancer and the other a Paladin." He paused as they reached the top of the hill to look around and back down at the area below and add absent-mindedly. "I think I preferred the Paladin, as humourless as she was."
"Problems?" asked Gann, also looking around.
"I find myself hoping we have returned on the day of a fair," Blake replied, gesturing at all the stalls that were set up.
"This does seem a touch crowded," admitted Gann.
"Even in West Harbour, in a swamp where firm ground was at a premium, we had a little room around our houses," Blake complained with a frown, "rather than a marketplace right outside our front doors. Except for some unfortunate people during the Harvest Fair."
"Think of it this way harbour-boy," said Neeshka, smiling reassuringly at some of the stallholders who had noticed Blake and noticed his sour look, "the more shops there are here the more gifts you can buy me without having to travel."
"I bought you that armour without having to travel."
Neeshka stuck her tongue out at Blake briefly. "All right, without having to travel or pay for delivery."
Blake smiled and chuckled slightly as he resumed walking towards the main doors into the Keep. He was maybe being too sensitive to this after growing up in a house that was, as he had mentioned to Neeshka, almost as isolated from the rest of the village as his foster-father was from the people. A part of it but with a distinct separation. As Blake led them towards the Greycloak sentries and they snapped to attention Gann added his own chuckle.
"Seeing all this," Gann commented, "I am more surprised, and impressed, by your patience with the Witches."
Blake gave him a puzzled look as he was not sure how to respond or even what Gann had meant. For a moment Gann considered explaining but decided that listing the reasons Blake could have been more arrogant could sound like suggesting he should have been more arrogant. And why would having an large Keep filled with soldiers of such a high standard of discipline and fitness, with equipment that Blake had been correct rather than only polite to tell Jacoby was fine work, engender any arrogance?
As they passed the sentries into the entrance hall Neeshka realised what Gann was thinking and began giggling. The puzzled look her harbour-boy gave her only intensified her reaction. It was such fun to imagine Sheva's face, or better still Kazimika's, if they returned to Mulsantir and marched up the hill with the Captain's Company behind them. That would be rather impressive and intimidating even if Jacoby didn't get the chance to give them even better equipment.
They entered the main hall where several people in fine clothes surrounded a familiar figure in the tunic of the Neverwinter Nine. Blake paused as he looked at that figure and realised that with his Dreamer's Eye he could see the aura of wounded strength and unwounded loyalty around Khelgar. The babble of competing statements and demands quietened as their arrival was noted. Some of the apparent dignitaries gave them a disdainful look as they saw Blake's battered armour, and of those and the others some had their attention drawn by Neeshka's well toned figure. A couple of them did seem however to at least wonder who these people were and start to connect 'bearded man in full plate' and 'attractive Tiefling woman' to suspect their identities before Khelgar bustled forward out of the group.
"Lad! Fiendling!" Khelgar bellowed in joy. "Where have you been? Why did you not send word ahead so we could welcome you?"
Blake smiles and clasped arms with Khelgar. "This explains why the Keep looks so well if it has been in your hands my friend."
"I have kept it safe for you," Khelgar declared, glaring over his shoulder, "despite the efforts of these to gain advantage."
"I… well," one Dignitary said in protest at this plain speaking. "I mean…"
"Ah, shut up," replied Khelgar, his already parchment thin patience with them ending now he had more important things to do. "And you can all of you get out. You can whinge to Lord Nasher if you want but I'm not wasting any more time with you today."
"Of course not," another Dignitary sneered, "and if this is the famous Knight-Captain then we'd not be wishing to speak with you anyway."
"I dislike your tone," Blake said with deadly calm. "I also trust my friend's judgement that whatever it is you want can wait. And if you wish to return then I suggest you prepare a formal apology for the insult you have given him and, through him, Neverwinter."
"How dare you," said the Dignitary, offended that his lack of manners was being pointed out, "do you have any idea who I am?"
"Why should I? You seemed to not know who I was from the disdainful look you gave me, and the leer you gave Neeshka," Blake replied, stepping forward. Despite being slightly shorter he still managed to loom over the other man as he continued. "Within the last hour I have spoken twice with Kelemvor himself, do you think whatever your credentials you can impress or intimidate me after that?" The Dignitary gulped and moved back. "As to the rest of you," Blake continued, looking around the room, "Khelgar has informed you that your audience with him is over for today and has indicated you should leave. Does he need to repeat himself?"
"Kelemvor? God of the Dead?" Khelgar asked as he watched the Dignitaries scurry away, now they knew Blake was going to support rather than protest Khelgar's decision to expel them. "That sounds like quite the tale."
"It is," smiled Blake, "and to answer your earlier question we arrived via portal so we could not send word ahead." He looked Khelgar up and down. "That tunic looks good on you; Lord Nasher made a sensible decision if he inducted you into the Nine."
"Maybe, though I did not like stepping into dead-man's shoes," Khelgar replied, not sounding too sure. "I told them this was only temporary but I don't think they believed me. They seem to think I will become so dazzled with the prestige I'll forget my objections to replacing you or, if I am replacing Callum, the idea they might just want to replace a Dwarf with a Dwarf…"
"My friend, if anyone had to replace me I would be happy for it to be you. You are a hero in your own right and that the last member of the Neverwinter Nine to fall was also a Dwarf is irrelevant. You were the best person to fill the vacant responsibilities."
Khelgar nodded though he was not looking totally convinced. Seeing this Blake decided he could not blame his friend for feeling that way. Although what he said had been nothing but truth the cynical side of him did wonder how important those truths were compared with Khelgar being the holder of the Belt, Gauntlets, and Hammer of Ironfist. By the laws and traditions of his Clan reuniting those artefacts had given Khelgar the right to rule over them and this was a greater right than a Dwarf called Keros had from being the descendant of the last Ironfist King to hold those.
Almost the first thing Khelgar had done after lifting the Hammer of Ironfist was, after telling them they did not need to kneel to him, say that Keros should continue to lead the Clan as he had done a fine job. And in the time between then and when Blake had seen him last the only way Khelgar had used his authority over his Clan was to tell them they needed to ally with Neverwinter against the King of Shadows. However as much as Keros continued to rule as he had done and as little as Khelgar had used his power this did not alter where the ultimate authority lay. Or that Lord Nasher would have been eager to take the chance to try to bond the leader of a Dwarven Clan to his service.
"But! Where are my manners?" Khelgar exclaimed. "You need baths, food, rooms, somewhere at least to put down your packs."
"That all sounds good," said Gann, drawing Khelgar's attention for the first time, "and especially the bath since, as I mentioned to him before, our friend here has been fighting hard and the evidence is assailing our nostrils."
"And where are my manners," Blake replied as Khelgar frowned at Gann, "Khelgar, this is Gannayev… Gann-of-Dreams… of Rashemen, a shaman of the spirits of that land. Gann, this is Khelgar Ironfist, Lord of the Ironfist Clan and one of those that defeated the King of Shadows."
"Here now, you know I don't press that claim," protested Khelgar, "lifting the Hammer showed I had the Gauntlets and Belt and a strong arm, not that I had the wisdom to be a good Lord." Blake considered the platitude that the beginning of wisdom was recognising how much you had to learn but stayed quiet as Khelgar peered at Gann and looked unsure of what he was peering at, until after a few moments he spoke. "Is he a Hagspawn?"
"Does it matter?" Blake asked in reply. Khelgar shook his head as he remembered what he'd learned in passing the Trial of the Even Handed. "But yes, he is and is also a friend."
"Greetings to you," said Gann smoothly, not offended by the reaction. It was nicer than some he had received and he did remember the tale of Khelgar and Neeshka meeting for the first time.
"Aye, hello," Khelgar managed to reply. "Any friend of the lad here is welcome in Ironfist clan halls and as a friend of mine."
"I thank you for that," smiled Gann, "and should you ever be in Rashemen then my spirits will also extend their welcome."
"Rashemen though," Khelgar said, looking back to Blake, "no wonder we couldn't find you if that's where you have been."
"It was a surprise as I was unconscious when I was carried through the portals," replied Blake, "but as you said and I agreed it is quite a tale, and better told over some food and after a bath and change of clothes." Blake patted Khelgar on the shoulder. "And don't put yourself or the servants to too much trouble, any of the spare rooms will do for now…"
"I'd not put you, or the lad or the Fiendling, in just any room," Khelgar interrupted. "You all deserve better. Besides, why would you need any room other than the Captain's Quarters?"
"Because you've been acting as Captain of this Keep, so…"
"Do you think I moved in there? Or that I took your title?" Khelgar interrupted again. "That is your room lad, and this is your keep, and neither would have changed unless Kelemvor and all the other gods themselves told me you were dead and not coming back. Though we had to get a new key made so we could change the bedding and air out your chests."
Blake looked a little taken aback. If he had been replaced by anyone else he'd have expected his things to be removed at once and even with it being Khelgar he'd thought his friend would have begun using the slightly more luxurious room before now. "Your faith in me honours me."
"Aye," Khelgar replied, looking embarrassed. "So I'll have the Captain's Quarters aired out again and two of the nicer spare rooms made up. Or two of the less nice ones made up and a pair of the haggling parasites moved to those."
"One room," said Neeshka, very firmly.
"Eh?" Khelgar asked.
Neeshka stepped forward and slipped her arm through Blake's despite still having her small shield on it. Blake was glad of her closeness but also a little glad he was still wearing armour. As nice as it was holding her with less metal between them Neeshka's small shield did have that sharp spine sticking from its face and he thought he'd felt a slight scratch across the side of his breastplate. He still smiled down to her and she returned the smile before replying to Khelgar.
"Gann needs a room to sleep in," Neeshka explained. "I know where I am spending my nights and I know there is enough room in that bed in the Captain's Quarters for me…"
"Not that we got much sleep when you were last there," murmured Blake to her.
"Please lad," Khelgar said, "no details."
"What?" replied Blake, in mock surprise. "You know what happened." He paused for effect. "Black Garius' undead army assaulted the walls of the Keep in the early hours of the morning, so none of us got much sleep that night."
"Of course, silly us," Gann nodded. "What other reason would there be for you two in particular?"
"What reason indeed?" giggled Neeshka, blushing very slightly in happy memory.
After a moment Khelgar led them out of the main hall and down the passageway to the Captain's Quarters. He unlocked the door and separated that key from the others on the metal loop he was carrying. Then as he turned to hand this to Blake he paused. "Hmm," he said, looking at Neeshka, "I was going to give this to you so you'd have both copies, but maybe I should give it to her."
"My keys were stolen along with almost all of what I was carrying," Blake replied before smiling, "but it would save her a few seconds locking and unlocking the door if you can have another copy made."
"Should we have the locks altered?"
Blake thought for a moment. "It is unlikely there would be a problem, as even if someone found the key and was able to use scrying magic or other means to find what lock it fitted that is not the same as being able to use that key and that knowledge. But I think we should afford to be safe and have them altered."
Khelgar pushed the door open and gestured for Blake to enter ahead of him. Blake reluctantly slipped his arm from Neeshka's as the doorway was not that wide and stepped forward and into the room. Everything seemed to have been regularly and well dusted and aired as the wood of the furniture still gleamed and it did not smell musty. The mattress of the bed was bare as this had been stripped down and on the chair was some neatly folded fabric.
"Is that my…" Blake began to ask in surprise.
"Aye, we searched for days and tried to dig down to where we had lost Casavir or Grobnar, but we could not get deep enough as your swamp is even less obedient to being dug than the stone of the mountains around my clanhold. We couldn't find their bodies and your mention of portals explains why the trackers found a dead end to the trail, but we did find your cloak at the start of that trail."
"You even fixed the clasps on it and the stitching I tore," Blake commented as he picked the cloak up and shook it out.
"That giant spider Kistrel you befriended did that before he… she?… left," replied Khelgar. He looked at the burnt and acid damaged cloak that Blake was wearing and shrugged. "Though that one you're wearing would have been more challenge. Anyway, other room is further down this way."
Gann smiled and winked slightly as he followed Khelgar off down the corridor to leave Blake and Neeshka alone. Only years of subtlety and needing to be quiet and stealthy saved Neeshka from slamming the door with how fast she shut it. She flung herself into Blake's arms, forcing him to drop his cloak to catch her. This was an exchange he was very happy to make as her arms came up around his neck. Somehow she managed to avoid injuring him with the tines on her small shield or the blade on her bracer and their lips met without any yelp of pain escaping Blake's.
Reality sometimes did not live up to dreams but here it was the other way around. In the Dreamscape of Blake's soul Neeshka's left arm had been injured so she had been unable to use it and Blake had been a little distracted by taking care not to touch it. Here though she was able to use both hands and though Blake was a little hampered by the tower shield still strapped to his arm he was able to safely bring his other arm around his sweetheart. The fine chainmail links of her figure-hugging armour and the thin flexible leather of his gauntlet were frustrating to them both as it let him feel the shape of her curves and her feel the path of his hand stroking up and down her back without either of them getting the full benefit of this caress. To be so close but so far was almost worse than not touching at all.
Eventually the kiss ended and Neeshka's arms slid down to more around Blake's waist than his neck. She wished he would also lower his arm as although the small of her back was a polite place for his hand if they were dancing she had a better idea for where she wanted it. Neeshka nuzzled closer to her harbour-boy as even if she wished he was not quite so covered with metal it was still nice. As she pressed her cheek against his upper breastplate and his bare neck she concentrated and her tail flexed to move back up along her. The broader spade at its tip found Blake's wrist and it coiled around this slightly to drag his hand down a fraction. Neeshka sighed contentedly as Blake obligingly let his hand be dragged to cup the curve of her rear.
"Gann is right," Neeshka purred to him, "but fortunately for you I like the way you smell."
"Swampy, I think you said," replied Blake, kissing the top of her head.
"Still going to bathe you though harbour-boy," Neeshka said, wriggling against him happily and frustrating them both again that the friction was Leather or Mithril against Mithril rather than skin to skin. "Might avoid anything too strongly scented, but you remember what I said to those unfortunate Berserkers?"
"About keeping my skin soft?" Blake asked dubiously.
Neeshka tipped her head back to grin up at her harbour-boy. "About massaging oils all over you…"
Her sentence was interrupted as Blake decided that those lovely lips tilted up towards his needed to be kissed again. Neeshka agreed that this was a far better use of her mouth than talking and her head moved slightly up to meet Blake's as it descended. By the time they had finished this kiss Neeshka's cheeks were flushed and her tail had corkscrewed into a happy spiral around his forearm. Blake pulled back and closed his eyes to regain some control, ignoring the small sigh of disappointment Neeshka gave as she anticipated what he might be about to say.
"I think," Blake managed to force out, "that we need to talk to Khelgar before…"
Now it was Neeshka's turn to interrupt his sentence and she did in a less pleasant way by grabbing a handful of beard and yanking. Blake's eyes opened in shock as she dragged his head painfully down. Neeshka used this to glare into them as she spoke. "I appreciate you wanting to take your time over it," she said, her tail unwinding from around his forearm as it started to twitch in irritation, "but right now I just want to get you out of that armour and into my…"
"My sweet, do you think once would be enough?" Blake asked, moving his arm up to around her waist to hug her close.
"Once would be closer to enough than none," pouted Neeshka.
"Once would just whet my appetite for you," Blake replied passionately. "You are more a hunger in my soul than that curse ever was and like that curse if I indulge it then the hunger might just grow ever stronger."
"Whoa there harbour-boy," giggled Neeshka, her eyes twinkling. She liked it when her harbour-boy got romantic as he said such strange things sometimes. He could have just said that if they got into bed they'd not manage to get out of it for a long time. "I might have said I never had any complaints about your endurance, but I think even you would need a nap eventually."
To her annoyance there was a faint diffident knock on the door and, to her further annoyance, Blake released her and looked towards this.
"Enter," Blake called.
"My lord?" a servant said, pushing the door open and peering inside. "We are here to set up your bath and make your bed."
"Sounds good to me," Neeshka whispered in Blake's ear, "get clean and then get cosy."
"Come in then, and please send someone with instructions that another bath should be set up in another room."
"What?" Neeshka protested, glaring at Blake as he began unstrapping his shield now she was no longer in his arms. "Oh, all right, fine… we'll bathe separately."
Hearing this one servant glanced at the copper bath being placed in front of the fireplace and then at Neeshka. There did not seem room enough for two in there, even two on very friendly terms, unless she was even more flexible than she looked. Then the servant realised who was standing very close to him and Blake leant in to speak quietly in the servant's ear.
"That is the woman I love," Blake reminded him, "so I suggest you think thoughts that don't involve her actually bathing. Just those that involve her having a bath prepared for her."
The servant glanced at Blake and was relieved to see the slight smile on his face and mild twinkle in his eye. His attitude seemed less offended and more that he couldn't fault the servant's good taste in sharing his opinion of Neeshka's attractiveness. But the servant could also see that Blake was serious in his warning and remembered that long before he had become Knight-Captain here he had already cleaned up the Docks of Neverwinter and reduced the Orc tribes around Old Owl Well to scattered remnants. As little chance as there was that Blake would do anything painful to him the servant decided that was too much chance to take.
"If you will follow me, milady?" another servant said to Neeshka, who left with another glare to be led to another room.
As the bed was made and pots and buckets brought to fill the bath with a mixture of heated and unheated water Blake started to remove the outer plates of his armour. He nodded and chuckled to himself as he saw a fresh scratch on the side of his breastplate that confirmed the spike on Neeshka's shield had got him when she slipped her arm though his. Though, on reflection, it could even easier have been him being clumsy when he disengaged from her arm. The servants laid out some fresh clothes from Blake's chest for him on his bed, including picking up his cloak from the floor, and placed some towels and soaps within easy reach of the bath. Then with bows from them and polite 'thank you's from Blake they left.
Blake removed the rest of his armour, taking especial care in one region after the effect Neeshka had on him, and stood for a moment in the nude to enjoy the relief of being free of its weight. Then he carefully got into the bath to let the warm water relax him as he started scrubbing. It was difficult to not think about how both he and Neeshka could have been in this bath if he knew the spells to shrink them, or that she could have been standing beside it and bathing him rather than them both having to fit into the bath… With an effort Blake focussed on his scrubbing. He was not used to having servants and as much as he knew this could be a more comfortable job than working the fields, and less dangerous than soldiering he still felt uncomfortable making too much trouble for them. Mopping up any water he spilt by splashing too much would be a minor task for them but avoiding that was useful as it gave him something to concentrate on rather than visions of Neeshka.
As Blake dried himself he tried to keep those visions away and this difficult task became much easier when he began applying antiseptic cream to a few scratches and the acid burnt raw spot on his shoulder. So to distract himself from that pain he began considering the less arcane alternative to the shrinking spells. If Master Veedle was still available then he could speak to him about adding more plumbing to the Keep. More specifically about expanding or altering his quarters to have a large enough bath for two and for this to at least have a drain to empty it even if it still needed to be filled by servants. Blake frowned as he started to get dressed and these thoughts of improvements to the Keep reminded him of something. Wearing just undershirt and undershorts and socks Blake went to his desk and sighed as he saw the scroll in the top drawer still had its wax seal intact.
He should have anticipated this when Khelgar had told him that he had not moved into the Captain's Quarters but it was still annoying. Their chances of returning from fighting the King of Shadows had been poor enough that Blake had taken the time to write down what he had been doing, and why, and what the next things he had intended to do as Knight-Captain so his successor at Crossroad Keep would have that guidance. Blake admitted to himself as he crossed back to his bed and continued dressing that from what he had seen of them most Nobles would have thrown it away after the most cursory of glances, and some would not even have spared the scroll that, but he had felt the effort worthwhile.
Blake shrugged his shoulders to settle the chain shirt that was part of the Neverwinter Nine tunic and to settle his feelings. It was irritating that Khelgar had not read the scroll but he did trust his friend to have done a fine job without it. As Blake buckled the belt over the tunic to hold the chain shirt in position, and make sure it did not shift too much over his sore shoulder, he saw a movement from the corner of his eye. The door was opening and he had not heard any footsteps or a knock. He moved to get his sword from where it was leaning against a chair but then stopped and smiled in surprise as he saw who was entering the room.
"You bathe and dress too fast!" complained Neeshka as she saw Blake standing there fully dressed.
"Sorry," Blake smiled, sounding distracted as his attention was more on how she was dressed than on what she was saying.
It had taken a while for Neeshka's bath to be prepared. Khelgar had assumed, like her, that she and Blake would be bathing together and the comment Gann had made as they walked down the hall about Neeshka being eager to scrub Blake's back had strengthened that assumption. Unfortunately for Neeshka that meant Khelgar had only ordered two baths to be prepared and so that was as much water as the servants had heated. She had tried to be patient even though each apology they offered for the delay while they heated more water had also reminded her again that it was three rather than only two baths.
However even if this had taken too long for her harbour-boy to still be nicely nakedly vulnerable it had been worth slipping back to the Captain's Quarters to see that look in his eyes. She decided to remember there was an advantage other than speed in not taking as long to dry herself since Blake seemed so admiring of how the slight dampness of her body made her long white robe cling to it. Neeshka smiled and ran one delicate finger down the neckline of her robe to open it slightly.
"I hope nobody saw you like that," Blake smiled back, his eyes following the finger. "I am not sure I would want to share such beauty."
"Ooh, getting possessive?" grinned Neeshka. "If I am not careful you will imprison me in a tower."
"And then you would pick the locks, or climb down the outside of it."
"But could I escape before my cruel jailer had thoroughly ravished his prize?" asked Neeshka, widening her eyes at him. "Or would it be only after that I would find some meagre clothing and sneak unseen through his evil lair?"
"Ah," Blake said, watching as Neeshka 'sneaked' up and down with exaggerated care and long steps that brought almost the entire length of her bare shapely legs out of the front of her robe, "but that would be such a risk. Imagine how much you would need chastising if you were caught."
"Chastising?" cried Neeshka, turning to face him and bringing both palms up to press against her cheeks. She held the expression of fear for a full second and then her hands came together for the fingers to intertwine in front of her mouth. She chuckled and gave Blake a sultry look. "Sounds like fun!"
Blake smiled to her and then looked away. "You need to get dressed my love," he said with an effort of will.
"I'd better take this robe off then."
At the rustle of fabric Blake could not resist looking back towards her and his breath caught in his throat. His beloved had undone the sash around her waist and let the robe fall open to expose the front of her body. He could see the curve of the inner edges of her firm high breasts, and though the edges of the robe were not quite far enough apart to reveal her nipples he thought he could see the shadow of them through the sheer white fabric. Below these the swell of her belly led down to join the curves of her inner thighs in a nest of red-brown curly hair. Blake swallowed as he remembered the taste of her and his palms itched to stroke along the path his eyes were taking up and down what she was showing him.
Neeshka smiled as her harbour-boy began to look as if an Ogre had smashed him in the head with a club. Blake took an almost involuntary step forward and her smile widened, but then there was a knock on the door and some awareness of something other than her returned to his eyes. "Hells, Hells, Hells!" Neeshka muttered.
"Yes?" Blake called, shaking his head as he tried to think.
"If you are dressed lad," Khelgar replied through the closed door, thinking he'd given Blake enough time as he'd learned that he and the Fiendling were bathing separately, "then come to the War Room, got some food and drink and some maps of Rashemen set up there."
"I'll be there in five minutes," said Blake, looking at Neeshka who had pulled the edges of her robe back together.
"Five minutes?" Neeshka asked, sounding annoyed. "Why five…."
Blake took a few quick strides and bundled Neeshka up into his arms. She barely had time to realise she had been picked up before Blake dropped her onto the bed and she was still bouncing on the mattress as he bent and pushed her robe open again. Neeshka started to make a slight nose of protest, but this was muffled as Blake's lips came down on hers. He cupped her head in one hand, his thumb stroking back and forth across her cheek, as his other hand began to trace patterns on her exposed front and under the edges of her robe. Then as Blake began kissing his way down her neck this hand also began to dip lower…
With how long Neeshka had been frustrated and how much she loved her harbour-boy her response was strong and immediate to his efforts. How long he spent devoting himself to her with lips and fingers and tongue neither of them was sure but what Neeshka was sure about was that it was longer than five minutes and longer than he needed to bring a very happy smile to her face. "Mmmmm," she purred, wriggling and running one hand down her body as Blake straightened. She smiled and stared salaciously at Blake's crotch. "Those trousers feeling a little uncomfortable there harbour-boy?"
"Yes," Blake replied, "dammit."
"Well," said Neeshka, keeping her voice sultry and filled with passion but pulling the edges of her robe up and over her again, "sometime if you are lucky I might return this favour." She winked at him. "Remember, you've got to go to the War Room now. Or several minutes ago."
"Again, yes, dammit," Blake growled, finding it difficult to care if he was late as he took Neeshka's closest hand from where it lay on her chest and kissed its fingertips before releasing it. "Join us when you can my love."
"Not that I need any time to recover," smiled Neeshka sleepily, stretching and drawing Blake's eyes back to her. "Go on," she added, "shoo."
Very reluctantly Blake left and decided that it had not been such good fortune as he had thought that Gann had remained with them and there had been a portal directly to Crossroad Keep. If Gann had returned to Mulsantir instead and they had needed to travel via the Song Portal and the Ruins of Arvahn then there would have been a river to cavort and bathe in and buildings with rooms they could have made secure. But his frustration was his own fault and he was just glad that Sharess had blessed him with the skill to give his beloved the sensual fulfilment she deserved.
"Khelgar here has been telling me stories," Gann greeted as Blake entered the War Room. "Putting more detail to the names and places you mentioned."
"And Gann here tells me you were travelling with a bear-god…" added Khelgar, "and that you ate the remains of Myrkul."
"Back me up on that will you friend," Gann smiled, "your colleague of the Nine here looked most dubious."
"Okku, who left us to return to his barrow, was a god-of-bears, he sought to destroy the curse that had been inflicted on me as previous hosts of it had used it to devour the spirits of Rashemen, either to survive or to revel in the destruction." Khelgar grunted and nodded so Blake continued. "The curse could do this as it linked the host with the Wall of the Faithless, that devours all those imprisoned in it, and that link proved enough to let me grant rest to what little remained of Myrkul haunting his corpse in the Astral Plane."
"Orc slayer and Dragon slayer and now God slayer?" Khelgar asked, looking impressed.
"You did as much against the Orcs and the Dragons as I did," replied Blake, "and I am no God slayer. When we met Kelemvor we saw just how weak Myrkul's remains were by comparison, and even then it was the Hunger of the Wall rather than my strength that finished him."
"Though it was your strength that overpowered and controlled that curse," Gann quibbled slightly. "But anyway, do tell me about these Dragons? When we confronted a Blue Dragon she seemed quite large enough for me so I was a little surprised when Blake here told her she would not be the largest he had killed."
"Well, that is a tale…" declared Khelgar, pausing to drink from his tankard and wet his whistle for the story. "There we were on Mount Galardyrm seeking the lost Belt of Ironfist, it's round my belly right now so you can tell we succeeded, and we saw a pile of treasure that would fill this room. Unfortunately we also felt the ground shake with more than the volcanoes belching as a Red Dragon that would fill this entire Keep strutted towards us…"
As Khelgar launched into the tale with gusto Blake decided there was not much he could add to what his friend was saying. Instead he busied himself with making a dent in the sandwiches. Just as Khelgar was approaching the climax where the Fire Giants were slain and the Dragon was treacherous Neeshka arrived. Blake looked at her in admiration as he so rarely saw her in a dress. The one she had worn for that breakfast in the Veil Theatre had been almost as fine in its embroidery but this one was better cut to fit and to flatter her figure as well as to allow her tail more freedom. And the embroidery was practical as well as decorative. Down each side of the skirt were deep pleats with matching patterns of gold and silver thread but although one side of the skirt was weighted only for balance the other had a dagger scabbard sewn into it and the weight of a dagger within it. The depth of the pleat and the patterns behind its hilt made the dagger very hard to see, but Blake was sure Neeshka's hand would find it far more easily than a bystanders' eye would.
Neeshka smiled and bent to mutter into Blake's ear. "You like?"
"Very much," Blake quietly replied, his eyes lingering for a moment on the cleavage created and exposed by her slight lean forward. "But the dagger?"
"Girl can't be too careful," said Neeshka, hiding her surprise that Blake had noticed it, "even in the Moonstone Mask."
Blake nodded to this. He'd thought it strange that Ophala's dress exposed more of her flesh than the dresses her girls wore but he had to admit that it suited her as well as her girls' dresses suited them. Even if she had shifted the nature of the Moonstone Mask's business since the plague she did still need to know how to make a particular lady as beautiful as possible and it was safer for them to have a weapon discreetly to hand. If this dress was the result of her advice to her friend Neeshka then she had advised her well.
"An impressive victory," Gann smiled as Khelgar finished, "though not an impressive display of intellect on the part of that Red Dragon. She had seen your prowess as you fought the Fire Giants together and if she was that wounded then keeping to the deal rather than attacking you might have been more sensible."
"It could have been worse," commented Blake. "Both Elanee and Zhjave had some powerful healing prayers and had the Red Dragon not been quite so quick to turn on us we might have healed her wounds and then had to fight her."
"So lad, I have shared some tales with your new friend," Khelgar said, looking to Blake as Neeshka took the seat next to her harbour-boy, despite her temptation to sit in his lap instead so they could feed each other grapes, "so how about you share with me the rest of what you have been doing?"
"The last I saw you was as I passed out when you gave me that potion."
"Aye, should have done you good, but then I saw a Gargoyle and had to chase it off."
"Another Gargoyle arrived and I rendered Qara invisible…" continued Blake, stopping as he realised, "wait, where is Qara?"
"That I don't know," Khelgar admitted. "When I got back I could see her and I carried her through that fortress, with her complaining the whole time, until she could walk again. Then she complained about the swamp as we travelled through that together. We met some of Neverwinter's scouts and continued on back to the city but she somehow managed to become even more short-tempered…"
"More short-tempered?" asked Neeshka, unable to resist the comment. "Is that even possible?"
"I'd not thought it, but so it proved. All my plans for searching the fortress for you seemed to meet with her contempt as did any visitors from the Mage Academy or the Many Starred Cloaks. We argued one night with her saying only magic could find you…which was probably right as you'd been taken through a portal… and the next morning she was gone."
"I hope she is safe, wherever her path took her," murmured Blake, "and that she has not let her desire for power blind her to the danger of it."
"Your words to the Gods, lad. Anyway, so what happened after you made her invisible?"
"I fainted again when the Gargoyle picked me up," groused Blake, still a little annoyed with himself even these tendays later. The memory of the feeling of helplessness and that he would never see Neeshka again still had the power to hurt.
"Not surprising," Khelgar said, sounding as reassuring as a Dwarf could be, "you were supposed to have been out for hours to let the potion work and sleep off its after effects."
"Fortunately for him," added Neeshka, "I heard you bellowing, and then saw the Gargoyle running with him in its arms…"
Khelgar grunted and nodded as Neeshka told her portion of the tale and gave an especially eloquent grunt when she mentioned Mephasm as how she had reached the barrow in time. As Neeshka finished describing, with some relish, how she had stalked and slain the Red Wizard that had been sent to deceive her harbour-boy Blake was able to start adding to the tale, speaking of the pain he had been in when he awoke and how surprised he had been when Neeshka struck. Together they told how they had travelled up through the barrow, met Okku for the first time, and travelled on past him to Mulsantir.
This part and the fight with the Red Wizards in the Veil Theatre was also of interest to Gann who began making his own comments when they reached the part where they, as he put it, had been honoured by the chance to release him from the Witches' prison. Khelgar pressed them for more details of the fighting and expressed his envy that he had missed such good fights against undead and a bear-god's army and Thayans. However he did ask Neeshka for less detail when, with a wink to Blake, she began describing enthusiastically what she had wanted to do and what she had done to Fyldrin of the Eleven Chairs.
"Thayans though," Khelgar grumbled. "You know they've got an outpost in Neverwinter now, lad?"
"Then I shall have to hope events in Rashemen, and Thay, are not connected to me."
"You did mention how Lord Nasher would prefer to sacrifice a minor noble," Gann nodded, "than have conflict with Thay."
"Minor Noble?" grunted Khelgar.
"That was his beloved's reaction as well," Gann smiled, "and seeing this Keep I can understand better why."
Blake waved this off and went back to storytelling. To Gann's amusement although Blake was more than fair in his recounting Khelgar still grumbled a few times about the attitude of the Witches. Visions of how they would have reacted to a lecture on manners and politeness by a Dwarf brought a smile to Gann's face. Khelgar seemed interested in how they had granted rest to the spirits of the furnace to find the replica Sword of Gith and found the Gargoyles in the hidden room and discovered where some of the plotting had taken root. Then they reached the river journey and after grunting in surprise at the activation word being 'Wendersnaven' Khelgar began looking queasy.
"Ach, boats," Khelgar muttered.
"With the winter snows approaching there," replied Blake, "and the roads in danger of becoming blocked it was the only way to reach the Ashenwood."
"I can see that, lad, but…"
"It didn't rock quite as much on a river as a ship on the sea," interrupted Neeshka, "not quite so much rolling side to side and pitching up and down and side to side and up and down and…"
"Okay lass, enough description," Khelgar said with a wave of his hand as Neeshka's words and the rhythm of them had the effect she hoped. Neeshka twinkled to Blake about her success and he gave her a loving but very faintly reproachful look in return. "So after the boat journey… which you don't need to mention more about…"
Gann took up the tale of how Blake's curse had interfered with himself or Okku being able to sense the turmoil in the Ashenwood until they were almost at the dock of the Lake of Tears garrison. The unhelpful attitude of Dalenka brought another grunt of disapproval from Khelgar, as did Blake's mention of how obvious the trail to where the Bheur was 'hiding' had been. When they mentioned having to kill the Berserkers of the garrison Khelgar looked very surprised until Blake explained how Nadaj had been possessed by a normally suppressed part of the Ashenwood's spirit, so solving the problems had been for the benefit of that rather than for the Wood Man or the Witches as they had thought.
Khelgar looked happier when they said they had managed to kill, or at least defeat that part, and speak to the Wood Man and even happier when they glossed over the return trip down the river and that their journey to the Sunken City had been on foot. He did give Neeshka a dubious look though when they mentioned having entered the city though the side door and through the Skein. He was getting used to the Fiendling and would even, if pressed, say that she and the lad did make a fine and happy couple but he was not sure he approved of how her influence made the lad look for ways around things rather than facing them openly and honestly.
When they reached the part of defeating the Earth Elemental Khelgar spoke again. "Another collapsing place? I'd have thought you'd have learned the first time."
"They did mention the sense of familiarity," smiled Gann.
"And the upper level, where the Slumbering Coven and others were, did not seem to have been affected," Blake added.
"Hah. Affected at once you mean," snorted Khelgar.
"Or after several hours had passed while myself and Gann passed through a Dreamscape," Blake replied.
"Hmm. You still might have been lucky," mused Khelgar. "Can dig out a lot; remove a lot of walls and supports, and nothing much seems to happen. Then it suddenly all collapses at once."
"If you are right then my mother is almost certainly dead," Gann nodded, "crushed or drowned."
"We encountered Gann's mother in the Skein where she had been exiled," Blake replied. "But she might have survived as in neither this world nor the Plane of Shadow had the building collapsed."
"Which does not alter her fate," commented Gann, "if, as friend Khelgar suggests, the collapse continued slowly after we left."
"What might alter it is our actions against the Slumbering Coven," Blake said reassuringly, "we did clear a path up from the Skein and without the other Hags to prevent it she might have managed to sleep and regain enough of her scattered wits to follow that path. But I am getting ahead of the tale."
Gann nodded and Blake continued from where they had left off with the start of the collapse. Khelgar gave a sympathetic 'ach' when Gann spoke of confronting his mother and learning the fate of his father. Approaching the Slumbering Coven through their shared Dreamscape rather than taking Okku's suggestion of trying to get their attention more physically drew the same dubious look to Gann as Khelgar had given Neeshka. Sneaking around things in the waking world was bad enough but it seemed he had to worry about Gann here getting the lad to sneak even further around them by going into dreams. When they reached the part of the journey through the dreamscape where they had seen Bishop embedded in the Wall of the Faithless Khelgar again interrupted.
"You think that was true, that was where Bishop ended up after we slew him?"
"Kelemvor confirmed it," replied Blake, "and also said that since Bishop did not fight the hunger of the Wall he had already been consumed by it in that short time."
"A shame…" Khelgar grumbled, "I was hoping he'd be burning in the Hells the black-hearted traitor that he was."
Neeshka gave Blake a worried look as this made her wonder how they were going to tell Khelgar the part about Ammon Jerro who was now burning in the Hells. He smiled to her and fed her a grape as Gann continued talking of the journey through the Dreamscape. For a moment she did not open her mouth so this grape was a little mushed between her closed teeth and Blake's fingers. Which she appreciated as it gave her the excuse of cleaning the grape juice off them to nibble slightly at Blake's fingertips. This distracted them both enough for Gann to reach the point where he and Blake had awoken.
They spoke of the fight with the Slumbering Coven and those on the way out of the Sunken City, and of the suspicion that Fentomy had intended them to be caught in the collapse. The journey back to Mulsantir and then back out to the Wells of Lurue took only a few bare sentences and Khelgar had no comment on the Dreamscape there. Or rather on the second Dreamscape since Blake did not feel it worth mentioning Anya and her illusionary Gann. It seemed unimportant compared with what they had learned of the curse and of the sacrifice Okku had made.
The return to Mulsantir also drew little comment but as they began recounting what they had found when they travelled through the portal to Thay this sparked some uncomplimentary muttering from Khelgar. The more they mentioned of what that had found in the Academy of Shapers and Binders the louder and more vehement this stream of comments about wizards and mages and the like became until Khelgar suddenly stopped and looked very embarrassed. He'd been grumbling away about how if wizards didn't have their heads in books they had them up their own arses, and made some rude comments about the sort of things a young male wizard might try to shape or bind. But the whole time sitting at the same table as him was his friend who was a wizard and, despite all he had been through, was still young as well as male.
"Fortunately I met him before he had enough arcane power to try using it for that," Neeshka said, grinning at Khelgar and deepening his embarrassment.
"I did wonder," smiled Blake, "whether Ammon Jerro surrounded himself with Succubi for more reason than just their fighting skill. He seemed well supplied with them and Erinyes in his Haven. Though the two leaders of them were powerful and worth binding to his service for that power rather than anything more carnal."
"Would have been easier if we'd had Gann there to flirt with them," Neeshka said, winking to Gann. "He'd have soon charmed them into helping to open the portal to the inner Haven."
"Hah!" exclaimed Khelgar. "At least one of the pair of them seemed like she'd have been happy to flirt with the lad here, and he might have done well if he'd dared make the attempt with you and Elanee glaring at him."
Ignoring that suggestion Blake went back to the tale of the Academy rather than the Haven. He'd not long continued when Khelgar interrupted again. "So, you found Ammon Jerro? I thought he had buggered off when I found him missing, so was a surprise when Fiendling here said he'd been trying to help."
"He was in a Ward of the Soulless," replied Blake, choosing his words carefully, "where they left people to die after removing their souls."
"Pah!" Khelgar said in disgust. "If they are going to kill people they could at least have the guts to finish them quickly and face what they are doing."
"So I commented at the time," agreed Gann, "though I was more concerned with a merciful quick end for the victim."
"There is that as well," Khelgar admitted, nodding to Gann before looking back to Blake. "So, if it had been removed then where was his soul?"
"It was in the possession of a pair of Pit Fiends," said Blake, reluctant to say more.
"No surprise there then," Khelgar commented, "would hardly be with some Celestials with what he'd done."
Blake paused and glanced to Gann, who nodded as if to encourage him to continue. Neeshka took his hand and gave it a small supportive squeeze as Blake drew in breath to release in the words he'd rather not say. "We did manage to get it back…" Blake said, unable to prevent himself pausing again, "by delivering equally damned souls we'd found in that Academy."
"Trading in souls," Khelgar sighed, shaking his head, "a bad business. You should speak to a priest and find what needs to be done to balance the scales."
"Well, thinking of scales and that being his symbol," replied Blake, "Kelemvor's gratitude for us ending the spirit-eater curse might have already balanced them"
"Maybe lad, maybe…" Khelgar said, not convinced, "but you should still pray. Find if Tyr thinks it was justice."
"It will be good to see Brother Ivarr," nodded Blake, "and at least I don't have to travel too far."
"Ah, he left," Khelgar said to Blake's surprise, "and the church was taken over by priests of Waukeen."
"Then I have another reason to travel to Neverwinter," said Blake, deciding to be honest with his friend, "as there is more to ask Tyr's guidance on."
"Aye?" Khelgar asked, before then looking worried. "Ah…would that 'more' be why Ammon Jerro is not here?"
"Yes," coughed Blake. "You recall Neeshka mentioned Mephasm had aided her?"
"Oh no, lad," Khelgar said, looking even more concerned at this. "Something about his help not causing any harm to anyone she liked, and I know she never liked Ammon Jerro…"
"To put it mildly," muttered Neeshka.
"And after Ammon Jerro trapped Mephasm at least twice," Khelgar continued, "I could see him wanting revenge."
"Ammon Jerro's soul was already condemned to eternal punishment," said Blake. "The Pit Fiends were speaking the truth when they said the trade was buying possession of the soul rather than redemption of it. But Mephasm did want this eternal punishment to be his to carry out rather than it taking place elsewhere and at other Infernal hands."
"So that was the price was it?" Khelgar sighed.
"It was," replied Blake simply.
"You are too smart lad," Khelgar said, shaking his head again, "you can think of reasons to let you do anything and that lets you do this."
"It did feel wrong my friend," admitted Blake, "but as you say there were reasons. One being that Ammon Jerro had tried…"
"I don't care," Khelgar interrupted. "If it felt wrong it was wrong and you need to pray for forgiveness. Maybe at a shrine of Ilmater as you martyred him."
"Or one of Hoar, The Doombringer," replied Blake firmly, "as it was retribution for those he had slain and was poetic justice as my sacrificing him was following his example and what he tried to teach me."
"He is… was… hardly a role model," Khelgar protested.
"Don't worry, knowing he would have done it to me without the slightest regret made my conscience clearer, but that is not the same as clear. Not even after seeing him and Shandra fighting alongside each other in a Dreamscape and being shown what could have been."
Khelgar looked at Blake for several long moments before he nodded and dropped the subject. "So after this deal with Mephasm, then what?"
"Well, we found the rest of what we needed to get the door in the Tower open," Blake continued, "but as it opened we were ambushed by Red Wizards…"
The fight with the Masters of the Academy consisting of one spell and then killing the survivor when she twitched wrong and became tangible again seemed rather underwhelming to Khelgar, but he started to cheer up as they talked of passing judgement on Myrkul and the battle with his Death Knights that resulted. Fighting their way through the Founder's Sanctum seemed to equally meet his idea of what made a good story, though he gave Blake a frown before nodding in approval of how he had executed the Founder. Or if not approval then at least understanding.
Returning to Mulsantir one last time to speak to the Witches and then to Shadow-Mulsantir to rest and then continue to and down through the Death God's Vault took only a few more sentences. Khelgar appreciated the change in the Witches' attitude and that Kaelyn and her siblings had left some undead by the Betrayer's Gate for the lad and his friends to destroy and to tell the story of destroying. Once Khelgar was satisfied with the details of this fight they were able to talk about opening the Betrayer's Gate with the Sword of Gith. How they had found Akachi's Captains were waiting for them on the Fugue Plane and were eager for a fresh Crusade. Then how Kaelyn had followed them and been judged Akachi's heir when Blake rejected this. And how they were forced to fight against it rather than either side allowing them to remain neutral.
"Ah, which would be the fight against a Blue Dragon the lad here mentioned?" asked Khelgar.
"That it would," Gann replied, slightly imitating Khelgar.
"The Dragon, Sey'ryu, decided that defending the gates against enemies of the Crusade meant attacking us," added Blake. "Then with Sey'ryu dead and the Supplicant's Gate breached by the Crusade it fell to us to prevent Demons using this to enter the City of Judgement to drag innocent souls away with them."
"I hope you sent them screaming back down to the Hells without any prizes," Khelgar growled.
"We did," confirmed Blake, with a slight smile, "and with them dispatched we headed to the libraries of Eternity's End to prevent the Lich Rammaq gaining dangerous knowledge. This we also succeeded at…"
"I still think you have boring magic harbour-boy," Neeshka interrupted, giving him a grin. "As well as being boring to miss out all those fights we had against his undead before we found Rammaq."
"Ah, yes, Araman had been able to move on to the Fugue Plane and serve Kelemvor to aid rather than hamper us," said Blake, ignoring the second part of her sentence. "Neeshka was rather amused when he used the epic spell of Mass Fowl to turn the Lich and his servants into Chickens."
"Chickens?" Khelgar asked, looking as if he found this even more implausible than eating a God. There didn't seem much reason though for the lad to be making that sort of thing up, it didn't make him sound any better or hide any mistake he'd made, so Khelgar nodded again. "I think I'd not want to eat the eggs from those. Or the meat."
"That we can agree on, my friend," smiled Blake, "but it did make them easier to kill. Unfortunately this had all taken too long and by the time we reached the Basilica of Lost Hope…"
"Another of the very cheery names in the City of Judgement," Gann commented.
"The Solar Zoab had slain the 'Voice of Kelemvor' and was exulting in his victory before a cheering audience of turncoat Militiamen," continued Blake. "There too we were victorious…"
"Remind me I need more blastglobes," Neeshka muttered.
"As the Militiamen were quite soon dealt with so Zoab and his two Planetar companions became outnumbered. We left the Basilica, unsure of where next to go, but then a messenger from Kelemvor's archivist approached us and we gained access to the records that showed where my soul was in the Wall…"
Khelgar nodded as Blake spoke of Araman saying he could aid them no further and leaving their company just before Kaelyn ambushed them. That Blake had been able to turn Kaelyn over into her Grandfather's custody rather than have to slay her was a relief. It was also a possible problem but Khelgar would rather deal with that than have the lad have whatever extra guilt slitting their throats would have brought. He looked quite impressed as they spoke of meeting Kelemvor and their impressions of him. Khelgar did grumble though about the double-talk that had gone on. Kelemvor was the Judge of the Damned so Khelgar thought he should not be acting like some mealy-mouthed lawyer looking for loopholes in the letter of the law. There seemed little difference to Khelgar between what Kelemvor said he was forbidden to do and what he had done. Except that having ended the curse himself would have saved all that time and suffering compared with waiting for Blake to come along to be given those detailed instructions.
Gann listened with interest as Blake and Neeshka spoke of the dreamscape they had traversed and their final fight against the Faceless Man. "That Faceless Man had been mentioned in previous dreamscapes," Gann commented, "and the echoes of former spirit-eaters feared it greatly."
"Bah, no surprise the lad here defeated it and no surprise he helped this Akachi rather than kill him," said Khelgar, stopping his grumbling. "Strong sword-arm and head and soft heart is what he has. You should see him when one of the cats around the Keep comes and demands attention and the baby-talk that results."
"I am not that bad…" Blake began to say, only to falter to a stop as he saw Neeshka looking at him and the sceptical eyebrow she had raised.
"Aye lad, you are," said Khelgar. "So what happened next after those two dream things turned up and thanked you?"
"We woke up, were thanked by Kelemvor, and Araman returned. His excuse for leaving when we were still halfway across the City of Judgement from it was that he wasn't allowed to help us attack the Wall of the Faithless. However now the curse was gone he was able to help us by creating portals to link to existing ones. With the previous teleporting in and out Okku was able to return to his barrow and we had the surprise of finding there was a portal here that we could travel to."
"Oh, aye. Set up in the headquarters of a trading company from Samarach that now has trading posts across the Sword Coast," said Khelgar, sounding a little frustrated. "And you've landed in a serpent's nest of secrets that I hope you can help untangle."
"Businesses do keep secrets," Blake replied.
"True enough, but when I said a serpent's nest I was not being too fancy in my words," grumbled Khelgar, looking to Blake. "One secret they had was that some of them were Yaun'Ti."
"Which would be cause in Samarach for their entire company to be seized," Blake frowned, "so that is a very serious secret."
"It's not cause here though, lad," Khelgar pointed out.
"True enough, but it does show how skilled they are at keeping their secrets," Blake replied, "by reputation the people and government of Samarach are paranoid about the Yaun'Ti and yet these people managed to accumulate enough wealth there, despite that, to set up a trading company here with what looked like a large and comfortable headquarters."
"Aye, and even leaving that aside their secrets seem more than that of a normal merchant."
"I mistrust secrets within my Keep," Blake said, his frown deepening, "or what had been my Keep."
"Still is, lad," replied Khelgar. "Still is."
"That, my friend, will be Lord Nasher's decision… so we had best send a message reporting my return as soon as we finish here. If these people have some agenda beyond becoming richer then I would want to know what rather than tolerate their deception. This is somewhat hypocritical of me as I did keep secret the connection between the Veil Theatre and a faction of Red Wizards, but I am not inclined to let people do the same to me as I did to the Witches of Mulsantir."
"If they have any records I am sure I can find them," said Neeshka brightly, looking happy at the chance to help her harbour-boy.
"Of that I have no doubt, my love," Blake replied, his frown turning to a smile at her happy look, "but if I demanded their records they would have no choice but to hand them over."
"No choice other than to destroy anything incriminating first…" smiled Neeshka back to him, "which would be why I would find them before you came in their front door."
"As usual you are one step ahead of me, though these people might be one step further still," Blake mused. "They have portals so they will likely keep any record of their secrets somewhere far from here. I think you'd still find them but you'd need to do a lot of sneaking and following."
"There is another way," commented Gann. "However they have hidden their records they cannot hide their dreams or their hearts."
"That is a tempting idea," Blake admitted, "though I think we would need good cause."
"Ah, the shackles of law," said Gann in understanding. "You wish people to be bound by them, but then are as constrained in how to achieve that as they would be by the binding."
"To break the law to enforce the law would be even more hypocrisy on my part," Blake replied before looking to Khelgar. "Do we have good cause? Good reason to think we need find their secrets?"
"Up until recently I'd have said 'no'," Khelgar frowned, more thoughtfully than in annoyance, "but the way I learned some were Yaun'Ti was when the owner of their company, one Sa'sani, killed another and that revealed what they both truly were."
"A killing? That would deserve thorough investigation, or is at least a good excuse, whoever was killed. Was it murder or self-defence?"
"That would be one of the things to find out," Khelgar admitted. "Was only shortly ago it happened. Sa'sani fled through the portal back to Samarach, the adventurers that had been acting as her agents pursued her, and none of them are back yet."
"Or perhaps back ever," said Blake cynically, "it depends if they were pursuing her or simply following their employer."
"They did seem shocked," Khelgar replied, "and they have done some useful work for the Keep and around the Sword Coast. Including saving West Harbour from a pair of Dragons."
"West Harbour?" asked Blake in mild shock. "But that was…"
"Your foster-father and that Bevil fellow were not the only ones to escape. You breed them tough down there in the Mere and hardly had that damn fortress finished collapsing then they were moving back in and rebuilding. Unfortunately the palisade they added did not do much good against the Dragons."
"That would have been quite a surprise," said Blake, clarifying a moment later. "Been a surprise if a palisade had done much and been a surprise if there'd not been a portal here and I'd asked Araman to link to the Song Portal near West Harbour."
"Could have been messy," Neeshka commented, giving Blake an apologetic smile over what she was about to say. "With your armour so battered you looked less like the image of a Knight-Captain, and you'd have been walking into a Mere village with a Hagspawn and a Tiefling. One that is still being rebuilt and had only just been saved from the Dragons that Khelgar mentioned."
"There wouldn't have been a prob…" said Blake, starting to protest at this judgement on his fellow Harbourmen. Then he considered how someone like the Mossfields might have reacted. "Hmm, maybe you are right. I think we saw the corpses of all the people you'd met there and most of the people who'd have easily recognised me." Shifting the subject he looked towards Khelgar. "So, these Dragons?"
"From what I heard from those adventurers and from other places a pair of Dragon brothers had decided to think small… no offence to your home village intended."
"None taken," said Blake.
Khelgar nodded. "So they set themselves up to extort tribute, and you Harbourmen being as stubborn as Dwarves…"
"Impossible," Neeshka muttered to Blake.
"They'd decided to deal with it themselves rather than inform Neverwinter," continued Khelgar, ignoring the mutter. "Then the adventurers stumbled into the midst of this and helped with the Dragons in exchange for being allowed to set up a Trading Post there."
"So their aid advanced their employer's goals," Blake nodded, his tone becoming cynical again. "I wonder how much else of their 'useful work' could also be ascribed to self-interest. What work did they do for the keep that they seem to have earned some trust from you?"
"They brought in all these merchants from other villages…"
"Which again benefits their employers," Blake pointed out.
"And they did help with obtaining some rare materials for even better equipment for the Greycloaks," continued Khelgar.
"Jacoby mentioned rare materials," Blake admitted, "though also that there was not enough for all the Greycloaks. Has he discussed his plans with you?"
"Nay lad, he has tried but I told him was not my decision to make."
"The rare materials might be useful," Blake said, fighting down his feeling of exasperation that his friend had been putting off making decisions as well as not having read the scroll.
"Aye, and they also helped me out with a couple or three of problems," nodded Khelgar.
Neeshka and Blake exchanged a look that showed the doubts they shared about why these adventurers had been helpful. "What sort of problems?" Blake asked.
"Well, they helped persuade some mercenaries to sign up as trainers, and when another group of adventurers stole the Gauntlets of Ironfist the ones working for the trading company got them back."
"I take it that Light-of-Heavens has left then, that you needed mercenaries as trainers?" Blake asked. Khelgar nodded so Blake continued. "As much as I trust you, my friend, if this became my Keep again they'd need to work hard to convince me of their worth. As to the Gauntlets I expect those adventurers did not recover them out of the kindness of their hearts."
"I did pay them well," Khelgar admitted.
"So they got gold as well as gratitude, and if they didn't return with corpses or heads it is even possible they'd arranged the whole thing with those other adventurers. One group steals something and the other group recovers it for them all to share the reward."
"You might be being a bit paranoid there, lad," Khelgar protested. "I didn't pay them that much compared with their share of the trading company's profits."
"Which doesn't alter the worth of the gratitude they earned, though you said 'a couple or three of problems' so what else did they do?"
"There were still a few Shadow Priests lurking, and their rituals still gave them power over normal shadows. I wanted to hunt them down myself but Lord Nasher ordered me to stay in the Keep. The adventurers took the bounty I offered."
"I am sure they did," smiled Blake.
"Oh, and Lord Nasher also stopped me from taking some men to kick the Luskans out of Port Llast."
"The Luskans hold Port Llast?" asked Blake in shock.
"Not any longer," Khelgar reassured him. "Fortunately that Haeromos fellow managed to break out of the cells there and was less tolerant of Luskan's presence than he was of their accusations against you. The ones he assumed were true and repeated as soon as you and he first met."
"He was rude," growled Blake, "and his attitude of 'guilty until proven innocent' did nearly get some of his people killed when they shared it. Was fortunate we were able to persuade them it would be more just to wait for my trial to prove my guilt or otherwise."
"Anyway, he drove the Luskans out," Khelgar nodded, "and the adventurers from that trading company claimed to have helped. Which they might have done as they did manage to get permission for another trading post. Which I suppose you would say means we should not be as grateful."
"That depends, my friend, on whether the Luskans would have been willing to let them set up that post," replied Blake. "And, thinking back, on whether those Dragons would have regarded extra trade as more wealth to extort or more risk of their presence being exposed. Perhaps I am being overly cynical but I think Gann and myself shall have to meet these people and see whether we can judge their hearts."
Gann looked to Khelgar. "My link with the spirits gives me extra insight into people, to see past their surface appearances, and so I may be able to see if these are worthy of your trust or of Blake's suspicion."
"And if the latter," Blake added, "then we can consider if we need to read their records or their dreams."
"I am not sure that would do much good, lad," frowned Khelgar a little in thought, "I know that if I were the judge I'd not trust evidence from dreams or from being 'taken' secretly."
"With dreams we'd be looking for where to find evidence in the waking world, rather than the dream being evidence in itself. But you're right we'd need to be cautious to make sure anything we 'obtain' is not tainted by how we obtained it. We would need legal proof as well as to be sure ourselves."
"Again the shackles of law," sighed Gann, "I do wonder if there is some better medium between this, perhaps, excessive care for detail and the instant and somewhat hasty judgement Okku passed on you."
"He did assume that a new spirit-eater would be worse than the one he swore his original oath to," Blake agreed, "but I may be letting my feelings about adventurers lead me into the same trap of making bad assumptions. Thinking of which was that Daerred I saw lurking around the courtyard?"
"Aye, they made enough gold and thought they'd learned enough, to buy a building and set up as an Adventurer's Guild."
"And you allowed this?" Blake asked incredulously, staring at him.
"Well… yes," replied Khelgar, looking and sounding puzzled at Blake's attitude. "They found some useful clues about the King of Shadows and I thought you liked them lad."
"Liked them?" Blake repeated, sounding even more incredulous. "Hells no." He paused and shook his head as he tried to organise his words. "I'd not change my life, as that would mean I'd have not met any of you, two great friends and the love of my life, but I had no sympathy for Daerred and his band seeking adventure. I was more than slightly insulted they claimed to be inspired by my example."
"I… ah…" said Khelgar before admitting, "I'm not sure I follow lad."
"They seemed nice enough," Neeshka added, "and you were nice to them harbour-boy."
"Which they repaid by straining my good manners," grumbled Blake, "every time they accused me of sharing their desire for adventure or wealth."
"Adventure is a fine thing to seek," Khelgar protested mildly.
"So is wealth," nodded Neeshka.
Blake looked at them and slowly their expressions shifted.
"But, aye," Khelgar admitted, "I remember our talk on Mount Galardyrm. That I'd realised that running towards adventure could also lead to running away from my responsibilities to my clan."
"Was the challenge rather than the gold I liked," smiled Neeshka, "and looking after you, harbour-boy, is enough of a challenge to keep me happy."
"And he seems to have the wealth to keep you happy as well," Gann commented, "so him having the wealth you sought as well as the challenge might not hurt."
"But my dagger might," hissed Neeshka, glaring at Gann as her tail started to twitch in anger.
"Peace," Gann replied, raising his hands with their palms towards Neeshka in a calming and fending off gesture. "I have seen how much you love him. My intent was gentle teasing not to cause any true offence."
Neeshka glared at Gann for a moment longer and then as she calmed and glanced at Blake she saw how surprised her harbour-boy looked. She knew she was overreacting but Gann's teasing about if she was marrying for wealth had resonated with the fears that had returned with their return to the Keep. While they were in Rashemen it had been easy to think of him as just her harbour-boy as they travelled together and flirted and fought the curse. The contrast between that simple campsite routine and having servants carrying water and laying out fine clothing for her, and the shock of going from the quiet of the City of Judgement straight back to this wealthy bustling Keep had made it hard to keep up that image of him though.
Blake looked at Neeshka for another moment as her expression and his Dreamer's Eye showed she was thinking about something. He hoped she would share whatever had upset her but decided to give her some time rather than ask for now. "Look," he sighed, "I can appreciate people saying we've had adventures. We've done things that are out of the ordinary…"
"Like talking to Kelemvor, or Myrkul, or…" Gann said, starting a list.
"Like that," nodded Blake, "but, unlike Daerred, adventure is not something I sought or was motivated by. Tymorra is a fine Goddess and worthy of respect and worship but it was Torm that guided me, the God of Duty rather than the Goddess of Adventurers. I defended West Harbour as my duty as a member of the Militia, agreed to take the shard to Neverwinter as my duty to my foster-father and to safeguard my home village…"
Khelgar slowly nodded as he began to see what the lad was saying. "Helped at Fort Locke to get the patrols back, though rescuing the proper commander of the fort would have been enough without us also helping the people with the kidnapped relatives."
"And of course," teased Neeshka "you only helped at Highcliff so a ship to Neverwinter could sail."
"Helpfulness is not the same as adventure seeking," Blake argued, pleased that Neeshka's normal cheer had returned rather than her looking pensive, "and I don't think there should be anything that some group of wandering adventurers can do that should not have already been dealt with by the local authorities." He looked to Khelgar. "Even if you could not march into Port Llast I am sure there were plans for more discreet agents of Neverwinter to provide greater assistance than these 'adventurers' would be capable of. That they discovered the Dragons in West Harbour first only shows the need for regular patrols."
"Or," smiled Neeshka, "for Harbourmen to learn to ask for help."
"I do remember you complaining," Gann commented, "that the garrison at the Lake of Tears had not already dealt with the problems there."
"All of what I did on our way to Neverwinter," continued Blake, looking between Khelgar and Neeshka, "was either the helpfulness that sometimes annoys my beloved or to help us travel so I could fulfil my duty to my foster-father and deliver the shard. All of what I did after embarrassing poor Neeshka and joining the City Watch was either that helpfulness or my duty as a servant of Neverwinter, first Watchman then Squire then Knight. Becoming an adventurer is far from 'following my example'. If I had been like Daerred and wanted 'adventure' then I'd not have sought it in patrolling for drunks and protecting shopkeepers against thugs."
"Though that did lead to more interesting things," Khelgar pointed out.
"More interesting things, my friend, only because of the state the City Watch in the Docks had been reduced to. Sergeant Brockenburn patrolled the Blacklake district for twenty years without as much trouble as we had." Blake turned to Gann to explain a little. "A lot of the Watchmen were in the pay of the criminals and others had been intimidated into not doing their jobs, or had simply given up with how their corrupt colleagues spoilt their efforts."
"Ah," Gann said, raising one eyebrow, "and I take it you were not intimidated or willing to accept the pay? And from what I have seen of your skills you would be a valuable recruit."
"Old enough to be dangerous, young enough to be stubborn," smiled Blake, "impatient enough to not want to wait to enter the locked-down Blacklake district, and honest enough to try to earn a pass by joining the Watch."
"Rather than just finding a way to get over the wall between districts," Neeshka added, "even when Brelaina kept adding 'just one more task' to her list."
"The temptation was there," admitted Blake, "but I'd accepted the cloak and its duties and we were doing some good…"
"That we were lad," Khelgar declared, "they were lucky to have us."
"Which, with respect to Tymorra, makes me only more cynical about Captain Brelaina," sighed Blake. "She was eager enough for credit that she was willing to disobey orders and send us to pre-empt the raid that turned out to be on more Githyanki. Was she also eager enough that rather than admit the City Watch needed help she had hidden the scale of the problems, as that would be to her detriment and being given help would risk the credit going elsewhere?"
"Hey, I'm not normally one to defend someone to you harbour-boy," Neeshka said, adding after a moment, "especially not a Watchman, or a woman…"
"And definitely not a woman who was a Watchman," smiled Gann, "and who you accused of sharing your taste in him."
"But you're assuming there was help to be had," Neeshka continued, ignoring Gann as Khelgar frowned and considered the accusation. "Neverwinter was quite badly stretched and even Marshal Cormick admitted funds were low."
"Maybe," nodded Blake, "but there was the warehouse."
"Where they gave us permission to take things in lieu of pay?" Neeshka asked, smiling in happy memory.
"And they didn't realise how many magic bags we… you… had," replied Blake, "but I was thinking more of when we left and met a squad of Greycloaks under the command of a member of the Nine about to raid the same place. So there was that much help to be had and more cynicism would wonder if Brelaina had known of those plans and decided to endanger lives by sending us there ahead of them to claim the credit."
"'Endanger lives'?" Khelgar frowned. "You are putting it a bit strong, lad, don't you think?"
"That warehouse was dark," said Blake, then he looked at the three other people at the table, "or at least to human eyes it was dark and all those we met while leaving were human. They could easily have rushed the warehouse and tried to kill a figure in the shadows before it could raise the alarm, and only then realise it was wearing the uniform of the City Watch."
"Aye, I suppose so," Khelgar admitted, "and with some Watchmen being in the pay of the thieves they might assume this is just more of the same. Continue the attack thinking they are killing turncoats. Could have been messy."
"Especially since, even had the warehouse been well lit, we were not wearing much aside from my City Watch cloak to identify ourselves," added Blake, "and with how similar Greycloak and City Watch uniforms are I'd have assumed they were traitor Watchmen if they'd come charging in at us."
"That does sound messy," Gann commented, "like neither side would have had much reason to hold back or question what they thought."
"I might have questioned it when I saw a tunic like this," nodded Blake, touching his own, "but by then lives could have been lost and, as I say, perhaps because Captain Brelaina wanted credit."
"You might be being unfair. Could be because they hadn't told her," Khelgar cautioned him. Then he frowned as he thought about it some more. "Though they didn't seem that surprised to see us, did assume Captain Brelaina had sent us…" He shrugged. "And as to credit, she is working towards a seat on the city council and trading on her links with 'the legendary Knight-Captain'…"
"What?" exclaimed Blake.
"I told you that you'd be a legend when the bards started puffing up your deeds," Neeshka said, her smile turning to a grin of delight and pride.
"Then my return may be a problem for her," said Blake, responding more to Khelgar than Neeshka. "She took advantage of my need to enter Blacklake and I am not inclined to let her also take advantage of whatever reputation I have earned. Especially since that would have been mostly earned against the King of Shadows. and her contribution to that was to delay and hamper me."
"Sorry harbour-boy," Neeshka said, wincing a little, "she might have been quicker to take Cormick's word that you were trustworthy if I'd not been there."
"I doubt it, and doubt if that would have made any difference," replied Blake, taking and grazing a kiss across her fingertips. "She seemed more concerned with how long she could use us for rather than how trustworthy we were. Even when we had supposedly proved ourselves to her we were still escorted straight to Aldanon's manse rather than being trusted without an escort."
"It would seem that this woman annoyed you almost as much as the Witches," Gann commented.
"Not as much at the time," admitted Blake. "It was soon clear we were being used as much to help her reputation as to help the people of Neverwinter, but as we were helping both I was not that impatient. In hindsight though I do wonder if being allowed to speak to Aldanon sooner would have helped. He couldn't tell I had shards of the Sword of Gith itself but learning these lumps of silver had been part of a Githyanki Silver Sword would have been useful to me, and to her."
"How so to her, lad?" Khelgar asked, frowning thoughtfully and then realising. "Oh, the murder investigation that was why Blacklake was closed down?"
"Knowing the murdered nobles were connected by having passed a similar shard between them would have been useful to that, and I am sure Captain Brelaina could have used 'uncovering that information' to her advantage. But she lost that chance as well as delaying us learning more about the shard and more about the threat of the King of Shadows. That was why I say it was despite her efforts we defeated the King of Shadows, the delay might not have hurt but it certainly did not help."
"Hmm, be cautious though," Gann warned. "Do not let your irritation draw you into a war of words you might be less suited to than one of blades or spells. I have seen how you favour plain speaking…"
"Hah, you did not see him at his murder trial," snorted Khelgar.
"He mentioned his murder trial," Gann replied, looking politely baffled, "and that he was acquitted but had to undergo a trial by combat."
"Did he mention how much he represented himself rather than letting someone else speak for him?" asked Khelgar. "That once the evidence was presented he took over for the rest of it?"
"The evidence we found showing that Luskan was responsible," Blake pointed out, "and had done it just to cast the blame on me, did put their ambassador at a disadvantage from the start."
"But you kept her there," smiled Neeshka proudly. "Tied her in verbal knots as she contradicted herself and you turned every accusation back on her."
Blake saw how bemused Gann was looking at this idea. "I favour plain speaking, but that is not the same as being unaware of hidden meanings from those that prefer ambiguity."
"I take the distinction," Gann replied with a graceful nod. "And perhaps should not have been so surprised. You had the insight to realise the ambiguity of a reply from Araman and the plain speaking to tell him you had noticed this."
"There was a lot of deceit in the journey and people hiding knowledge," sighed Blake, "so I was tired of tolerating it and am tired of discussing it. Is there anything else of importance or can we talk about something more pleasant, such as where Neeshka and I should marry? I had thought here but if West Harbour has been rebuilt then maybe there…"
"Wait!" Neeshka interrupted, almost in a shriek. "What do you mean 'where Neeshka and I should marry' harbour-boy?"
"The ceremony has to be somewhere," replied Blake, looking puzzled at her reaction and then feeling his fears reawaken. He'd trusted the Dreamscape and how the image of the Red Woman had spoken of the love they shared. Perhaps that trust was only how desperately he'd wanted it to be true that Sune had blessed him with Neeshka's love, rather than her feelings being only gratitude for his kindness that she had mistaken for this.
"You seem to be assuming I would say yes…" Neeshka accused him, "which is a fair assumption… if you ever asked me, which you haven't!"
"I haven't?" asked Blake, taking some comfort that 'yes' would have been a fair assumption. Maybe the Dreamscape was right and Tymorra had blessed him with the immense amount of luck needed for Sune to bless him.
"No you haven't," Neeshka confirmed. "The closest you came was saying 'if you ever got around to it' then Mephasm might become your in-law."
"Oh," said Blake eloquently.
"You have said you want her at your side always," Gann commented, trying to sound helpful, "and she has said the same."
"Aye, and how much you love each other," added Khelgar.
"And that anywhere as long as you are together is good," Gann nodded.
"And you kiss a lot," said Khelgar, "though marriage might put a stop to that. Especially when you start filling this Keep with tiny Harbour-Fiendlings."
"And that you would be together until the end," Gann concluded, adding in mock puzzlement, "…but mentioning marriage?"
Neeshka's shock at Blake's sudden and casual mention of a wedding had worn off enough in the respite the others' exchange had given her that she giggled as she saw the expression on his face. She'd not seen him that stunned for a long time, aside from when she'd undone her robe sash. Blake smiled as he heard her amusement and then stood from his chair.
"Then I shall have to rectify my oversight…" said Blake, starting to go down on one knee.
"Wait!" Neeshka shrieked again. Blake wobbled slightly as he was already halfway down but he managed to stand again without having to grab the table. Neeshka gave the other two a weak smile. "Can you give us a moment?"
"Sure, lass," replied Khelgar, hustling a reluctant Gann out of the room.
Blake looked towards the door as it shut behind them and then back towards Neeshka, and then seeing the empty chair looked to where she had retreated to the other side of the table. Her head was lowered so she was staring at the table and a plate of chicken drumsticks with more attention than they deserved. From her body language and his Dreamer's Eye Blake could tell she was unhappy and unsure and his heart sank. The way his emotions were flopping about between hope and despair was beginning to make his head pound.
"I… I know I was assuming your answer and your feelings," Blake said slowly, "and I apologise for not realising I had not actually asked, and for trying to ask in front of our friends rather than in a more romantic private spot, and…"
Neeshka waved a hand to silence Blake as he started to apologise for all the things she didn't actually care about. Then she looked up from the table to let him see the fears she normally hid. "Are you sure about this harbour-boy?"
"Of course I am sure…" replied Blake, looking worried at just how unhappy she looked. The body language and Dreamer's Eye had only told half the tale at most.
"No, don't answer so quickly," Neeshka interrupted. "Think about it harbour-boy, you're not really 'harbour-boy' any more. You're 'Knight-Captain', you're a Noble of Neverwinter, one of the Neverwinter Nine, and is a…" Her voice turned bitter as she thought of all the other problems her heritage had caused her, and how little she cared compared with this. "'Demon girl' really a suitable wife for you? The other 'Nobles' will make things hard enough for you for being peasant born without you having the disadvantage of being married to me…"
"I have thought about it," said Blake, taking his turn to interrupt, "and the simple fact is that I don't give a damn. You could never be a disadvantage as your love and support would help me through the troubles there as it has through everything else I have faced. The only reason I care what people say is how it upsets you and I do not recognise their right to decide whether you are a suitable wife for me or not. If Lord Nasher himself gave me a choice between all this…" Blake gestured to encompass the whole Keep. "And marrying you then, as Sir Nevalle threatened that time, this Keep would have a new Captain by nightfall."
"You have respect and power and status…" Neeshka said, biting her lower lip nervously.
"But without you I would not have love," interrupted Blake, again. "I was happy in West Harbour and despite the curse I was even happier travelling through Rashemen as you were there. I know what choice to make and it would be no sacrifice." Neeshka was still looking unconvinced so Blake paused and rubbed his forehead in thought. "Look, I don't know what else to say. Perhaps I should have made it clear that I knew we'd have problems, but I don't think either of us wanted to worry the other by mentioning them."
"Problems," Neeshka repeated, "that is like saying the spirit-eater was peckish."
"And I solved that problem," said Blake, hoping this was a good way to convince her, "because I had the love we share to help me both in controlling the hunger and then in ending it. We are stronger together than apart and, as we said, and Gann reminded us, anywhere as long as we are together is good." Blake smiled. "Besides, as Gann also reminded you, just before you offered to stab him, we have managed to scrape a few coins together."
"Just a few," Neeshka said, managing a weak smile.
"Even discounting the wealth of this Keep, and even if we don't get repaid for the coin we put into the rebuilding," continued Blake, "and even though I'd not want to become an adventurer after what I have said of Daerred, if we need to become travellers then we have the wealth and skills to do so. In some ways I'd prefer to travel the world and the planes so we could share their sights. If I'd known Khelgar was in charge here, and so this Keep was in good hands, it would have been a much harder decision where to let Araman's portal take us."
Neeshka came back around the table towards him, her eyes glittering a little with unshed tears. "As long as you are sure?"
"I am," Blake said, hugging Neeshka to him with one arm and running the back of one forefinger across her eyes to wipe away the tears. "So long as you are."
"In that case then," replied Neeshka, reaching up to cup one bearded cheek in her hand, "I do."