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Hero's Song - Chapter Twenty-Seven

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The swirling magic subsides around us; darkness is everywhere, barely illuminated by the unearthly glow of guttering torches that line the walls, their flames eerily blue. I blink, trying to work past the disorienting feeling that I'm still spinning through space...

"Great," says Qara acidly. "We always go to the best places in the realms." She narrows her eyes. "Are you sure that tome worked right, Sand?"

The elf is next to me, and I can hear the awe in his voice. "Yes, it did. But without knowing the exact location where the King of Shadows is..."

"As I thought. Useless." Her voice is practically dripping with venom.

"The tome worked, Qara," I snap, unable to keep the irritation out of my voice. "This is...just as close as it could get us, it seems."

She whirls on me, her green eyes flashing, dangerous. "And maybe Aldanon chose to send us here. Or Sand! Or...who knows! Maybe it was you and Sand, tricking us into coming here!"

"Enough," Ammon's voice is barely a growl. He gazes around us, his voice subdued when he speaks next. "The ancient wards of Illefarn are still in place, after all these years. I fear finding the King of Shadows will be harder than I thought."

Neeshka snorts. "Hard? It looks to me like there's only one place to go, and that's straight ahead."

"Aye, she has the right of it," I say, eyeing the darkened path before us warily. "I don't think he's trying to hide at all."

Casavir's voice rumbles over me; he is farther away from the torchlight than the rest of us, and his face is in shadow when he speaks. "And I think we have not yet had our final say with the King of Shadows' allies..." His voice drops dangerously. "Garius or Bishop."

I suck in my breath sharply, eyes narrowed. "What makes you think Bishop is here?"

"It does not matter what you believe, any longer." I catch a glimpse of blue eyes in the darkness, gazing at me sadly. "He has shown his true nature, at last." And your belief in him was for naught, are the unspoken words that writhe under the surface. He looks away from me. "If we meet him here, then he will finally speak the truth. Perhaps, even then, you will still believe his words over mine." The edge of bitterness in his voice ensures that any retort I could think of dies on my lips.

"We must be wary of wards and traps," says Elanee nervously. "And we must not seperate."

"Oh...I'm sorry, but I don't think Neeshka heard you! She seems to be...well, not here." Grobnar's voice is high and anxious, coming from waist level, somewhere in the darkness.

Our eyes fixate on the spot where the tiefling had been standing, shadows skittering across the empty floor.

Khelgar grunts in surprise. "She was right here. Did she sneak off?"

"Why would she sneak off, here of all places?" I hiss, the hairs on my neck standing to attention at the sudden chill in the air.

"Know that she has been taken." Zhjaeve's eyes are nearly glowing as she looks at me. "I think we must be on our guard - and our wills must be focused on the task ahead. If we allow ourselves to be divided, in group or mind, then he will win."

"The gith has the right of it," Ammon Jerro's voice cuts sharply through the darkness. "If this is the path before us, then we must hurry, and reach the King of Shadows, while we still can."

I draw my swords, the bade of Gith glimmering brightly; it illuminates the path before us, casting silver light and banishing the shadows that slither along the walls. The ceilings are high enough that my light doesn't reach them, and the blackness above our heads seems to watch us, measuring, as we step through the door at the end of the hallway.

o o o o o o

"Ah. We've been...expecting you."

Sand's voice is incredulous from somewhere behind me. "Three reavers? Three?"

"You are powerful, Shard-Bearer. You may be of some use to our Lord," said one, chuckling coldly. "However, you do not need to be alive in order to be useful..."

o o o o o o

His spell burns me, and I can't help but cry out, losing concentraion. The ritual power fails, and I have to begin again, biting back the pain that worms through my head. "Damnit, Ammon! Recite faster!" Zhjaeve's body lies crumpled like a broken doll not far away, unconcious, the true name scroll still clutched in her hand.

"... danouin zaray palakal vanootz!"

Impeccable timing, I think to myself, and my blades crash into the first reaver's body as it's True Name renders it helpless; it dies in a gurgle, and I leap over it's body, rushing to aid my companions with the other two...

o o o o o o

Khelgar falls at my feet, gasping, a deep wound in his back. "By the gods...Harper!"

"Here!" I shout desperately, fending off the last of the reavers as it tries to dive low and finish the dwarf...Ammon's voice is reciting so fast that he risks stumbling his words and ruining the entire recitation, but the syllables come out clear, clean, and exact. "Get behind me!"

The dwarf does so, dragging himself on his stomach; I try to supress the panicked nausea that fills me at the sight of his gaping wound. Casavir thunders past me, throwing himself bodily into the thing, and I open my mouth to use my last ritual spell...

And suddenly it is finished. The Name is recited, and the reaver is roaring in pain and despair, crumbling to nothing before our very eyes.

I fall to my knees, hands poised over Khelgar, my weapons laid down on the floor. The words to a healing spell fall from my lips like the notes in a song, and I see the slashed skin mending before me. Casavir is reviving Zhjaeve; Qara is standing off to the side, breathing hard, while Sand helps Elanee to her feet.

"Are we all still alive?" pipes Grobnar."

"For now." Qara eyes the gnome distastefully. "I wouldn't bet on your chances, though."

"Why, how thoughtful, Qara. I feel the same about you!"

I glance sharply at the gnome, somewhat surprised...but he radiates oblivious innocence. Still...

"We are close," intones Casavir grimly. "I can feel a dark, unholy presence, very near to us. " He eyes the huge, double doors in front of us warily. "Whatever is beyond, we must be prepared for it."

Everyone is more or less healed, and they stand, eyes trained on me. I nod firmly, swallowing the fear rising at the back of my throat. "Let's finish this, then."

o o o o o o

I stride in, making my steps bolder than I feel, my Sword a beacon of brilliant light, surrounding me in an aura of silver. Neeshka is kneeling in front of the portal...when I notice her, I move to her side; there are numerous cuts, gashes, and burns along her body

"I waited for you..." gasps Neeshka, pain in her voice. "I knew you'd come.

"Know that I shall attend to her wounds," mutters the githzerai, raising her hands to cast a spell...

"Garius...tortured me," she says haltingly, and sighs in relief as her wounds begin to close and dissappear. "Tried to get me to turn on you, of all things." She gives me a weary smile. "Obviously doesn't know us very well, huh?"

"Look out!" Khelgar throws himself in front of all three of us, brandishing his axe, and a crackle rips through the air.

He stands there, his skull grinning, as the after-effect of the spell subsides. Shadows seems to twist and writhe around his feet, like hungry dogs begging for scraps.

"Ah, Garius," says Sand in disgust. "I thought I heard the shadowy slithering of cowardice incarnate."

"I'll have to admit, I'm impessed," says the reaver before us, his eyeless sockets burning with cold fire. "But really...what did you think you'd accomplish, by coming here?" his voice becomes colder, menacing. "You have done much to disrupt our war efforts. But you will answer for it - and you alone."

"Alone?" I feel the presence of my friends behind me, shuffling closer to where I stand, and I nearly smile at him. "I think not."

"Oh, your companions? For them, I am prepared to offer mercy." His voice is low and smooth, rich with persuasion. "You led them, you ordered them. I spoke at some length with your friend Neeshka here... and with others you have traveled with."

My heart nearly stops at that, but I narrow my eyes. "They wouldn't betray me."

"Ah, but you have already felt the little fractures that have been slowly growing in your group." His head turns, briefly, to where Qara and Sand stand, and I can't miss the sly note in his voice. "Whether it be paths to power...or simply those who can think for themselves, and recognize the true enemy here."

Casavir's voice is colder than death. "Bishop."

And he is there, walking from the shadows; he wears the dark, shadow-marked armor of one of Garius' knights, the kind that has graced many fallen enemies in our campaign. Corpses that he and I had made, together. He meets my eyes, and there's a calm there that strikes my heart like a dagger. "My debt to you is over, Knight-Captain." He chuckles bitterly. "Little vanima'lindo. For what it's worth, I almost kept going for you, right to the end. But your Uncle, this war, those people...some things that are too hard to get past. Even.." and his voice breaks; he looks away from my stare. "...even with everything else."

"Don't do this, Bishop." The part of me that is still Knight-Captain Harper sneers in disgust at how broken my voice sounds in my own ears.

"I can't help it," he says through gritted teeth. " Getting tied down... even to a feeling for someone, just isn't my style." He laughs, then, almost painfully. "The most frustrating thing about it? When I met you, I was thinking it would be as easy to hate you as I did Duncan." His eyes meet mine, once again. "But I don't... at all." He sucks in his breath, and the calm is back in his eyes, two dark pools, smooth as liquid glass. "But see, that's the reason it's going to end like this. I'm not going to be tied to anyone or anything again..."

"Can you at least tell me why?" I ask helplessly, and Garius' voice intercedes.

"Oh, do go on, ranger; we have some time before our Master arrives, and then none of this will matter." The reaver's voice is chiding, patronizing, and I catch a flash of anger in Bishop's eyes as he glances at Garius. Zhjaeve whispers in my ear, "Know that Garius is stalling, hoping to distract you until the King of Shadows arrives...we must not wait any longer..."

A wave of my hand cuts her off. Bishop looks back at me, his voice cold and even. "Duncan...he saved my life once. Found me outside my burning village, nothing but dead Luskans all around." He rubs the back of his neck, looking at a space on the floor in front of him, his voice hollow. "Thing is...I was the one who burned that place to the ground. And all the witnessess...they were dead. Then, Duncan comes along, and I'm too wounded to do anything, barely living. I can't silence him, and he knows I'm the one that did it. And instead of killing me like he should have, he saves me, drags me out of there, says I owe him in that stupid, half-joking voice of his..."

A horrible realization dawns on me, and I can feel my eyes widen in disbelief. "The Mere...Redfallow's Watch...that was you?"

"Aye, and a grand place it once was. Luskan's loved to raid it, dragging any able-bodied boy off with them and recruiting them into their Death Squads." He makes a flourishing, mocking half bow. "Didn't know that I was a Luskan Assasin, did you? Trust me...the 'training' they put you through would have had even you wishing you were dead and burning in the abyss, rather than be one of them." His voice grew quiet. "Their initiation ceremony, the last step in training, was to massacre a Neverwinter village. I chose my own."

"Your own...that makes no sense! Your home?"

"They did nothing!" His voice rises in anger. "Just watched. My own father..." He practically snarls the word, like a curse, "...cowered in our house while his only son, barely a child, was tied like a prized hog and thrown over the back of a Luskan warhorse." He seems to remember himself, and inhales slowly, deeply, that calm settling over him once more like armor. "When I came back, the squad I was in came with me, to watch my handiwork. They were camped at the edge of the village; I set fires around their perimeter, and the town as well, and just let it all come circling in. And they burned, like sheep in a corral." I nearly flinch at the cold satisfaction in his voice. "They deserved it; every last one of them; deserved death." He gives me a rueful, half-smile. "And I suppose I did, as well. Poor ol' Duncan...he shouldn't have saved me. But he certaintly played out that debt, enjoying it..."

"So because Duncan saved your life, you're going to take mine?" My voice is harsh, angry.

He narrows his eyes at me. "No telling what Duncan told you. All this time, all he had to do was send word to Luskan that I was the one that killed off their squad at Redfallow's Watch, and I'd be dead before the day was out. And then...the first day you entered that tavern, kicking the door open and shouting for your dear Uncle as if the Nine Hells were hot on your trail, I knew you'd be a liability. One more person I'd have to silence." And then he sighs, and shuts his eyes. "But you were the hero; there was no cold-blooded murder, no silent dagger in the night, for you. I would have been dead by morning had I tried it. And it just kept getting more and more complicated...a keep, knighthood, a damn bloody army...and that damn voice of yours..." He shakes his head, and there's a fire in his eyes when he looks at me next. "I'll'd make a half-decent hunter. You almost had me snared, well and truly."

While he is speaking, there is a growing darkness...a tangible, oily blackness to the air that seeps from the portal in front of us. I vaguely register it, but I can feel my companions shifting nervously behind me. My fathers words are echoing in my head. "Sometimes two people caring about each is strength, Bishop, not weakness."

He scowls, cruelly, but his eyes are sorrowful. "Say what you doesn't matter, in the end. After this, I'm free and clear." His voice is dead, even and calm. "After the King of Shadows rolls across the Coast, none of this is going to matter."

"And it is time, I think, that we prepare you for his entrance," Garius' voice cuts through the air like a blade, and our eyes fall on him. "You have one who stands before you, willing to think on his own. Do you think all your companions who follow you, would follow you to death?" His laughter is cold, cruel. "I think not."

"I would die for her, for Neverwinter, without hesitation," comes the fierce retort from Casavir.

Elanee moves to my side. "We are all here, are we not? I think you underestimate us, Garius."

"From the Weeping Willow Inn to here, I've followed her, followed her gladly, and there's no way in the hells I'm backing down now." Khelgar is still in front of me, his axe held crosswise across his body, as if to shield us all behind him from the entirety of Garius' power, all by his lonesome.

"Know that the choice is a simple one, Garius." Zhjaeve's calm, deep voice ripples past my ears. "If you fight us, you fight us all."

Garius turns, that blackened skull aimed at Sand. " are awfully quiet, little wizard." I hear Sand shift uneasily behind me as Garius continues. "Sand... I know you studied at the Hosttower... and what relics you saw there are nothing compared to the ones that lie here, the secrets of ancient Illefarn. The power you seek is here... and I can allow you to rectify certain... inequities."

"Yes, well, as tempting as becoming one of the many shadow reavers we've already slain is...I shall have to pass." His voice is biting, dripping sarcasm, and I smile slightly at the sound of it. "Not much future, you see - for you, or them." His voice warms slightly. "Besides, the little girl here... she needs minding, else... well, else bad things could happen to us all. And I will not allow that to happen."

Garius nearly seems angry...he turns to Qara, and there is a low desperation in his voice. "Ah, and then comes the matter of restraint." He steps foward, and we all tense, lifting our weapons as he speaks. "I can feel your indignation, Qara - your power rolls off as your anger grows... as those weaker than you claim to understand you, when all they want to do is drag you down."

Qara steps up to my side, and I feel a surge of triumph...and then she keeps going, moving to where Garius stands, turning to face us. "I'm tired of her, and all the rest, telling me what to do and how." Her eyes meet mine, and she smiles coldly. "I'd like to see how you fare while my fires are melting that armor of yours against your body, Shard-Bearer." She snorts derisively at my shocked expression. "Traipsing around like you're something special, saving the world, when I'm the one with true power."

Sand sighs, somewhere behind me. "The girl has become a child, and now, are our enemy. "

"And Ammon Jerro," says Garius, his voice almost sympathetic. "The infernal contracts, the hordes of githyanki...both, easily broken, with the power of Illefarn behind you. And even your dear Shandra can be returned to you, the life that you missed replaced; in time, you could know of her again."

Ammon steps forward; his heavy hand falls on my shoulder as he speaks. "You could promise all that and more, but for all your empty promises, I have seen the one I follow accomplish so much more." His voice lowers, growling dangerously. "And Garius... for mentioning Shandra to me, I shall enjoy watching you die."

Garius ignores him, muttering an incantation, and we all bristle, tense, as he lifts his hands; a barrier shoots up around the portal behind him, and the very shadows along the walls themselves take shape, crawling towards us, placing themselves behind Qara and Bishop. He chuckles at us. "Just a precaution to protect our Lord from the bloodshed; after all, he is almost here." He steps forward, a spell crackling between his hands. "Too bad you won't be alive to witness it."

o o o o o o

I cut down yet another shadow, kicking my way across the room to where Sand and Qara are tossing spells; the elf's face is grim and determined, but even I can see that he's losing, slowly but surely. I am nearly halfway there when a hand grabs the back of my collar, yanking me backwards. I stumble, fall, roll over my shoulder, look up...

Bishop stares down at me, his eyes cold. "They'll be no heroics today, lindo," he says sharply. "Just death."

He comes at me, his blades swinging downward, and I block his strike easily, pushing away and scrambling to my feet. "Is this what you want?" I stand there, breathing heavily, as he circles around me, swords at the ready. "To simply trade one master for another?"

He growls, lunging at me, and we lock blades, the clattering of magic steel ringing in my ears as he pushes me back, away from the others. I sidestep a particularly nasty swing, the Sword of Gith flashing brightly as I parry his blades with my own, and for a moment his eyes are boring in to mine. "You're not even trying hard," he snarls.

"Neither are you!" I shout desperately, and he shoves me away from him, the sound of our swords sliding together grating against my ears. "There's no reason for you to do this!" I duck again as he swings for my head, and kick out at his knee...he stumbles, and I dance away instead of using the oppurtunity to strike at him.

He gets back on his feet, his face furious. "Attack me, damn you!" With a near-roar of wordless anger, he charges me, and I'm violently pushed back against his barrage of twin swords. The wall meets my back, breaking my concentration, and before I know it, his blade is at my throat.

The near-intimate closeness of his face to mine is more than I can bear. My arms sag, weapons falling to my sides, and I close my eyes. "Amin mela lle'or'dos," I whisper. I love you. "Don't do this." When I open my eyes again, he is near frozen, intense agony filling his eyes. "Just leave, Bishop. Walk away."

Garius' voice breaks through the cacophony of battle. "Kill her, ranger!" I can hear his steps, pounding the floor like thunder as he moves closer to us. "I command it! You will kill her, now!"

In a blink, the look in his eyes changes. The blade lowers from my neck, and he turns; the cocky, arrogant tilt to his head is all too familiar as he sneers at the reaver from across the room. "You know, Garius...I just wouldn't dream of stealing that pleasure from you. After all, you really don't need me, do you?" He walks forward, away from me, and the knot that had been tightening in my chest loosens suddenly, my breath releasing in an exhale of relief. His voice carries out over the room. "I think it might be best if you stopped having people stand between you and the Knight-Captain here - Torio, Lorne, your reaver friends..."

Garius voice is cold fury at it's best. "You will die here if you leave, Bishop. I will come for you when I am done here."

"Garius..." he shakes his head, chuckling. "When you're done here, it'll be because your sorry, sad carcass litters the floor." He turns, and glances at me, then. His right sword-hand moves to his forehead, in a mocking half-salute, but his eyes are serious, pained. "Tisi ento commae, vanima." And he turns, striding off into the darkness to the echo of Garius' frustrated roar.

o o o o o o

He was weakened, dying; we closed around him, the remnants of shadows and undead creatures scattered across the floor behind us. Qara stares up into nothingness, her dead eyes blank, blood staining the front of her robes from where Khelgar's axe had near cut her in twain. Casavir limps...the shadows were strangely attracted to his pure aura, and he has struck down most of them on his own. Zhjaeve's breath comes raggedly as she surreptitiously attempts to heal us. Ammon Jerro stands next to me, a pillar of finality, his face drawn and grim, as my sword flashes down; the light dances along it's edges, almost in glee, and a song ripples through the air, pure and exhultant.

With nary a sigh, Garius dies under my blade.

And a moment later, before I can draw another breath and taste the victory on the air, his barrier around the portal collapses. With a thunderous rumble, the gateway flashes to life.

Hero's Song - Chapter 27 © Avariel

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