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Hero's Song - Chapter Twenty-One

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I leaned against the cold stone wall, steadying my breathing. Neverneath was a complicated twist of passages, secrets, magic...oh yes, there was magic down here. I was no wizard, but I knew a little of magic, and I could feel it humming through the stones around me. And I suppose it also became a certainty that some sorcery was involved when the guardian statues starting speaking to me...

There were a few imps that wandered the passages that I walked, but they were easily dispatched. I thought irritably of Lord Nasher's request that I leave my friends he's wishing I had brought them with me now. I know I was.

I cast a quick, mediocre healing spell to take the sting out of most of my superficial wounds, and pressed onward, past the last of the statues. It had asked me to swear fealty to Neverwinter, of all things. But in a place such as this, when I spoke the vows, I could feel their weight resting heavy on my soul, and my words seemed to slither through the air and sink into the very stones themselves. It chafed me, somewhat; it was no geas, that was for certain, but to require a vow from one who was already hell bent on doing what was right...well, it seemed very typical of Neverwinter, to require words and oaths. I didn't need a vow to do the right thing; but I suppose some people did. Whoever had designed this labyrinth sure took their precautions seriously.

I stepped into a circular room; the faded blue glow that seemed to come from everywhere cast an eerie light on the eight statues standing in a circle. In front of each statue, reflecting the light on their wickedly sharpened edges, were longswords, the same type of sword that Nevalle had given me, which I still wielded in my right hand. They floated in midair, and when I walked close to the first statue, the sword swooped above me, flashing. I ducked, but the blade wasn't going for me; It was cutting letters, words, in the air above the statue's head. The letters glowed briefly, and a sentence spelled out before my eyes; Slade, last of the Nine. Sadly, his first day was his last battle.

They faded a few moments later, and the sword took it's rightful place, back again at the front of the statue. I frowned quizzically, and moved to the next; again, the performance was repeated, the words reading: Tamper, eighth of the Nine. Youngest of us all, who kept all of us young. The statue itself seemed to smile down at me, and it was with no small amount of uneasiness that I moved on to the next.

N'halien, seventh of Nine. His chest caught an Illusk arrow meant for mine. Mine? I glanced towards the center of the room; a coffin, balanced on a dias, was starting to glow gently.

Coneth, sixth of the Nine. His blood was impure, but none ever doubted his heart. Aye, there were some who's blood was undiluted as winter snow, and I couldn't begin to guess at their heart.

Shoce, fifth of the Nine. Three dragons could not slay him. Alas, the treachery of the fourth. I chuckled lightly, despite the somber atmosphere. It would have to be treachery, wouldn't it? Someone who could take down three dragons would probably have easily handled another one on fair terms. Ah, but that was the nature of the beast. Especially the beast who could breath fire, and who's older than your entire bloodline.

Thracier, fourth of the Nine. His death as a traitor does not release him from service. The words bled red before they dissappeared, and I felt a sting of sadness. Betrayal of your king, your country; for a man as bound to duty as he must have been, to be one of Halueth's Nine; it must have been a hard thing to turn against it. I was a weaver of songs, teller of tales, and the oldest story in the book was the one of betrayal.

Floashebel, third of the Nine. She never bore a child, but was mother to newborn Neverwinter. I could understand the feeling. I definately felt like a parent half the time, with my companions stringing along behind me.

Galavren, second of the Nine. The only one who remembers the promise left unfullfilled.

Ah, the hells take your secrets, I thought irritably. What promise? It was the way of ancient places, to give you a taste of knowledge while hiding the feast behind some locked door or secret cavern. I snorted in disgust and moved on to the last.

There was no statue. I stared, confused, at the empty pedastal on the ground; then my own sword shot out of my hand so fast that it nearly burned the skin off my palm, and began writing in the air...Talven, first of the Nine. We shall not rest until his sword takes its rightful place.

The glittering blade returned to my hand, and the words glowed persistently in the air before fading. I inhaled deeply, muttered a quick prayer to Deneir, and stepped lightly onto the blank, dusty pedastal.

The ceremonial sword in my hand grew warmer, and the other blades shifted in the air, their pommel stones pointed towards the coffin I now faced. I stepped off the pedastal lightly, moving towards I approached, a whispering voice echoed around the chamber.

"The Nine are assembled, and one duty remains for me; I bequeath this, the Rod of Never, to the new Lord of Castle Never." The stone figure carved on the lid of the coffin was holding a delicately carved metal rod; right in front of my eyes, it's fingers slowly opened, allowing me to reach down and take it. "Deliver it to him that he may use it to protect Neverwinter from its savage enemies." The words echoed around me as I stepped back from the coffin, and a chill ran down my spine.

I turned, and nearly fled up the stairs that opened before me; they seemed to wind on forever, and just as I thought my breath would leave me for good, they flattened out into a long, dark hallway. I could hear noise; the sounds of battle, echoing from the far end of it. I ran, now, full speed, towards the light barely seen around the seam of a secret doorway. Lowering my shoulder, I turned my head away from the impact even as I threw myself bodily into it; it crashed open, and I spilled into the brilliant light of the throne room, rolling down the dias that led up to Nasher's seat of power.

He was holding off a Shadow Priest, with only the help of a few guards; immediately I was on my feet, calling on another ritual power as I staggered towards them; in a rush of song and magic, the Priest shrieked in agony, burning...when my sword sliced through him, he crumpled into dust.

I gasped for breath. "Are you...all right..?" I bent over, clutching my ribs as my lungs ached for air. "Sorry...the stairs from below...sheer murder..."

"Harper Kross..." Lord Nasher looked to have taken a few wounds, but he chuckled regardless. "How did I know you'd be the one to come bursting in here? Is Nevalle...?"

"Here, milord," said the knight, entering through the now open doorway. "Captain Harper must have unsealed the castle with her...rather spectacular entrance." He was gazing at the peices of shattered door that now littered the steps up the dias.

I straightened, finally able to breathe without risk of accidentally inhaling my tongue, and asked, "Do you need healing, my lord?"

"My preists will take care of me, Captain, don't expend your magic." He regarded the ashes on the floor at his feet. "Assassins. They sent assassins here - so this is how this enemy fights, with shadows instead of cold steel."

Nevalle frowned. "How did these things get in here?"

"They must have used night and magic to their advantage - hoping to strike at us..." Nasher looked at me, disquieted, "... at you, before we could prepare." His eyes widened as he noticed something hooked into my belt. "Is that the Rod of Never you're carrying?"

I looked down at it, bemused. "I would assume least, that's what he called it."

Nasher was staring at me in disbelief. "Who called it?"

I wilted slightly under that stare. "It's a long story. There's a tomb down below, I had to pass through it..."

"Halueth Never's tomb? I always knew it was deep below the city,'ve seen it, have you?" His voice was excited. "May I see the Rod?"

I slipped it out from my belt and handed it to him wordlessly. He held it in front of his eyes, awestruck. "I had heard the Rod rested below, but none have been able to enter Lord Halueth's tomb. It seems the ancient alarms of the Keep opened the way..." He looked at me, his face sober. "I should be able to open some of Castle Never's oldest secrets with this rod. It seems some good has come from this surprise attack...thank you for bringing it to me, Captain. "

"Well, it wasn't as if I was looking for it, my lord," I said, my voice somewhat edgy. "I will suggest, however, that if you do venture into Neverneath you have some men get rid of all the magic statues? I could have gotten to you sooner if I didn't have to dance through traps and games of answer-the-useless-question."

Nevalle looked scandalized at my tone of voice, but Nasher seemed amused. "None of us are worse for wear because of it, Captain, but I shall...consider your request." He slipped the rod into his own garments, and then drew his sword. "And now, I have a request for you. Kneel, please."

Nevalle interjected, "Lord Nasher, there are certain rites for inducting knights that must be..."

"Nevalle..." Nasher arched an eyebrow at him. "I knighted you at Redfallows Watch in the mud, with orcs surrounding us. Ceremonies can wait." I felt a warm, prickly sensation that spread throughout my entire body as he turned back to me, and said in a voice that brooked no argument, "Now kneel, Harper Kross, and be knighted."

I did so. My knee bent to the ground, and I stared at the floor, the hot sensation growing as I felt the blade tap first my left shoulder, then my right; and it was done. I was Lady Harper Kross, Knight of Neverwinter. When I stood, my vision was nearly swimming. My god, Duncan would never let me hear the end of it...

"A knight of Neverwinter is entitled to land, a keep - and forces, milord," prompted Nevalle.

"She shall have them," Nasher said firmly. "And there more request I have of you, Knight-Captain." He looked me in the eyes soberly. "We've lost a valuable asset to Neverwinter...and a faithful friend. Mira was devoted to this city, and her death has left a gaping hole in the Nine. I would ask that you fill that hole; no one has proven themselves more capable of Neverwinter's defense and deserving of that honor than you."

"I..." I felt a little sick. "I'll have to think on that, my lord. Perhaps after the King of Shadows is defeated..."

He nodded at me in acceptance. "I shall await your answer, then. And he will be defeated." Nasher growled, pounding a fist into the palm of his hand, a determined look in his eyes. "I am tired of waiting for this enemy to strike. We have counteed every moev he has made so far, but that will not last; we must take what advantage we can get by striking first." He looked at Nevalle. "I want you to have the Watch start evacuating the city; Port Llast has offered aid to our citizens, and we must move as many innocents as we can out of harms way to prepare for the battle."

As Nevalle left the throne room, Nasher called out, "Meet us in the war room when you've passed the word, Sir Nevalle. We three have much to discuss..."

o o o o o o

The wind was howling outside of the tavern, rain battering the shutters as Sal desperately tried to tie them closed. Many travelers were stuffed into the small common area, driven to the keep by the weather, and were now settled around the room in various stages of drunkeness. Talk and laughter were high, especially with Grobnar playing nonsensical music in the corner...leave it to a bunch of drunkards to find that gnome funny, he thought scowlingly.

He took another long draught from his drink, snug in his corner, where he could watch the room and the wall was at his back. She had been gone near a week when a messenger had stopped by the keep, to report that Castle Never had been attacked, and an assasination attempt on Lord Nasher had been foiled. The man hadn't known anything about what had become of Harper...Bishop had even stuck a dagger in his face, toying with the idea of removing an eyeball or two, but the whimpering pisspot had merely started sobbing that he really, truly, didn't know anything else and please, not to hurt him.

He snorted with amusement at the memory of the worthless messenger scampering away like some three month old-pup. It had felt good to take out some frustration; that elven wench and her talk of saving people drove him mad, sometimes. Something had changed in her, no doubt, when they had come back from chasing reavers through her old Mere village. And her words kept running through his head; "I couldn't run forever...some day, whatever deeds I've done will come back to find me..."

"You look awfully serious to be holding that drink, ranger."

He glanced up, slightly startled; he'd been lost in his thoughts, and cursed himself for not noticing the woman that now stood before his table, a slightly mocking smile on her face. "Be grateful its a drink, and not a blade, Charene, else you'd be a few feet shorter."

She tsked at him, shaking her head. "Such harsh words for me, Bishop? Come now, you can spare some civility for an old friend, yes?" She slid into the seat across from him, her smile wide; she'd grown her dark hair out longer since the last time he'd seen her, he noticed, and it slid over her shoulder as she leaned forward. "Of all the places I could have found you, I didn't expect it to be Crossroad Keep."

"I don't recall asking you to sit down."

"I don't recall needing permission to do much of anything," she said flippantly, examining her nails. "What are you doing here, exactly? The last I heard, you were skulking in some tavern in Neverwinter, looking for work."

He practically snarled at her. "Are you deaf, wench? I'm not hankering to speak with you, or even look at your sorcerous hide. Do us all a favor and go find something lethal to amuse yourself with."

She laughed at him. "Ahh, that tongue of yours hasn't changed a bit." She smiled at him, her eyes sparkling in invitation. "I wonder if anything else has." She deftly slid her hand across the table, her fingers brushing against his wrist. "What do you say we walk me around this keep you've grown so attached to, hmm? Catch up on old times."

He arched a brow at her; the sorceress had a penchant for idle dalliances, true; it was the one thing he had liked about her in the past. She was easy to please..and easier to get rid of when he had wanted her gone. But as he took in her dark, mischevious eyes and confident smirk, he felt an emptiness in his gut, and her brazen offer turned to ashes as it reached his ears. He brushed her hand away from him disdainfully. "Sorry, old girl, but you're not worth the effort to get out of my chair."

Her eyes narrowed. "You have changed," she said, all lighthearted seduction gone from her voice. "I've heard stories of your Captain, ranger; her name is on the lips of all the men that work here, and when I heard you were here as well, I just had to come see for myself..." She laughed, then, but the warmth was gone from it. "You're well and truly shackled, aren't you?"

"Quit your mouth, witch," he said, his voice steely. "I'm not shackled to anything, least of all some woman..." and even as he said it, he felt the wrench in his chest, and the slight edge in his voice that gave him away. Charene grinned in delight.

"At least you try to deny it," she said, standing up. "Who exactly, though, are you trying to convince?" She inclined her head regally. "It was most pleasant seeing you again. Perhaps next time you'll have...had a change of heart, as it were, and we can have a more agreeable meeting." She turned, and moved through the crowded tavern, dissappearing amongst the sea of patrons.

Blast that magic twisting harpy, he cursed to himself. He tossed back the remainder of the ale, her words writhing in his head. What in the hells was he doing? He had thought maybe he could convince the bard to drop this foolish quest, but even when she hadn't...well, he had stayed here, hadn't he, like some lovesick puppy begging for scraps.

Not scraps, whispered a voice in his head, one that he couldn't quite manage to squash. She gives you everything, asks for nothing...and she's a fool to do so, isn't she?

Furious at himself, he rose to his feet, throwing the glass against the wall with all his might. It shattered spectacularly, peices scattering acoss his table and the floor underneath it, and he saw Sal hurry over, an indignant expression on his face...but he ignored him, shoving his way to the door and out into the raging weather. The rain beat against his head and shoulders relentlessly as he squelched through the mud; the courtyard was deserted, every man and woman inside some shelter or another, so it was easy for him to spot the two, sodden, hooded figures riding up to the gate. Bishop felt a twinge of anger, apprehension, and...underneath it all...relief, as he recogized the smaller figure on horseback; wearily holding the reigns, but otherwise unharmed.

The Captain had come home.

Hero's Song - Chapter 21 © Avariel

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