Yay! I'm back! Thanks to Lynn-Pintel for a very nice review, and Gaspode once again. And of course a favourite from Corvida-Magareth too. Moving onto the new chapter, Garius' story arc ends here (for now!), and Phaedra receives an unexpected gift in return for her efforts, yes the Captain of Crossroad Keep is coming into her own.
Apologies if this chapter sometimes seems a little bleak at times. Phaedra did go through something rather terrible, and I didn't want to just do away with the consequences of that, so they will continue to be a background to her character development, but thankfully she does get other things to think about, including the arrival of Zhjaeve. A new companion, but one who I've found rather troubling I'm afraid. In all honesty I have very mixed feelings about Zhjaeve's involvement. In some way her function seems to be simply the transmission of information and to fulfill the 'mystic guide' trope. Doing something with her character is difficult when there's so little to work from. I've embellished and re-worked her explanations, got rid of her knowing about the Rituals of Purification right away (where did she get that information from anyway?), and here's hoping her relationships with other characters will help grow her into something a little more. She will become somewhat important to Phaedra, and some other party members aren't going to like that one bit! I'm also going to try and probe her motives as we go on, maybe her agenda might be a little more complex than it appears.
Otherwise, the movement into becoming hero of the world and Captain of the Keep seemed a little sudden in the game, so I put some reluctance in Phaedra's reaction to these ideas, hopefully making the development a little more gradual. Let me know if it seems natural. I also got rid of going back to Neverwinter then coming back to Crossroad Keep as it seemed needlessly complicated. Which gives Phaedra a bit more time to get used to the Keep anyway.
Anyway, read on please! Thanks for reading!
"Where is Garius?" Vale asked quickly, staring at Phaedra uselessly. That was the critical question, wasn't it? Where was Garius? Phaedra felt her nails dig into her palm. She had to face him again, bring this to an end.
"We've got to head down…" Phaedra glanced back at the rest of the party gathering back through the gateway, and the Cloaktower mages. Urgency was critical, not merely because of the waves of power she could still feel boring their way slowly through the gelid atmosphere of the Keep, but because she didn't want to wait another second with their gazes, and every question they asked silently of her, pressing into her. "They're doing their ritual in the dungeon"
"Phaedra, wait" Elanee touched her arm to slow her, but withdrew it the moment Phaedra turned, as if she was afraid that Phaedra would slap her hand away. "How can you be sure?"
"Elanee, there is not a second to lose" Phaedra dared only look into her eyes for an instant. She could never tell just how much Elanee could see, just how much she could sense…and frankly she did not want to face the questions she had seen in Elanee's face since she'd entered the hallway. Those were questions she didn't want to have to answer…ever.
Quickly she led the party back to the left, the way Torio had taken her, into another long, vaulted hallway. Portraits that were coated with a thick layer of dust, some singed with fire, others peeling and fading, watched their passage implacably from the walls. Once Crossroad Keep must have been magnificent. Suddenly, splitting that thought in two, another pulse of dark energy seared through the Keep, this one shockingly intense, so much so that Phaedra felt it like an ache down to her bones. Bending over, she clutched her head, clenching her teeth tight…by the Gods, it was unbearable. She felt it as much as a physical thing, a wrenching of her joints, a involuntary grasping upon her muscles as if her body was trying to shield itself, as a mental agony, the scorching of thoughts by a passing brush of torment, a touch of pure evil. It rose, unbearably, a wave of discomfort that grew and grew and swelled until it was almost more than she could possibly bear and she only yearned to open her mouth and scream, but her teeth were clamped tight. And then it ebbed again, slowly releasing its hold…slowly…drawing back, but not fully, so that even when Phaedra found she could think, and hear and feel again, it was still there, working upon her like an unwelcome ache in her jaw.
"Ah…" Sand brushed his robes with clenched fingers. For the first time he looked rather dishevelled, sweat glistening on his narrow brow, his normally elegant posture twisted in discomfort. "That would be the impending part of our impending doom" He muttered through clenched teeth.
"By Mystra" Vale murmured. "The power…of it. What is he doing down there?" The Cloaktower mage closed his eyes a second, touching his head with fingers as if trying to focus himself. It was hopeless either way. The dark power was all-invasive, all-pervasive, clinging to the air like an oily film. "I begin to doubt our chances of survival." Vale murmured. "And I feel like I'm being optimistic" Phaedra heard a stirring among the other Cloaktower mages…and amongst her own party. They didn't want to hear that. Maybe it was the truth; the power beneath this fortress was immense. But Phaedra found she didn't care. She would see Garius dead. She wasn't leaving this fortress with…that man…that man who had almost raped her, still alive.
"Vale, Garius is dying tonight" Phaedra said softly, fixing the Sun elf in a cold glare. "Either you can help me destroy him, or you can leave."
"Agreed." Bishop sneered "Enough talking; let's get Garius. We don't need this fool's help" Phaedra glanced at him, her feelings a stormy swell within her as her eyes found her unlikely saviour. She had been conflicted about Bishop for so long, and now…she couldn't tell if her new confusion was just gratitude overwhelming her long-held caution, or if her consuming desire to end the man who had tormented and victimised her somehow did bring her closer to Bishop. It did feel…like he was the only one who really could understand her urgency, the strength of this desire to kill Garius.
"I never said anything about not helping you" Vale looked at her firmly. "Let's go down there then, before this gets any worse." And, despite the evident reluctance of some of the mages, they did go deeper into the shadowy fortress, further down towards the festering heart of this dark place, where Garius waited at the centre of this flow of horrid power. Guided by the aching, nagging sense of wrongness that pumped through the fortress, Phaedra led the way, following the way Torio had taken her originally, through another decaying corridor lined with luxuries that had fallen to pieces, and they emerged into another hallway, this one entirely bare and barren of anything that might once have made it liveable. To the side, a series of cold, stone steps led down a dramatic drop to a cast-iron doorway, secure as only a dungeon could be. This was the right place, Garius was down there; she could feel it down to the marrow. But unfortunately, the way was blocked.
"You may not pass, Shard-Bearer" Standing before them was a woman, sallow and thin, and garbed from head to toe in black. Her voice, and the way she held herself as she gazed through burning, black eyes at Phaedra, practically vibrated with the intensity of her purpose and her self-possession. "Our King forbids it. Garius will be reborn this night" And she was not alone, emerging silently from the shadows like wraiths were three of the more familiar Priests they had encountered before, with their animalistic ivory countenances and flowing black robes, hoarse rough breathing emerging from behind their fearsome masks. Each carried a mace, but Phaedra knew that these were not their true weapons, just as this woman, seemingly a leader, was far from defenceless. The same dark power pulsing through the fortress was at their disposal. But they would not take her, not after everything she had endured to get this far.
"Is Garius not your master?" Vale whispered, raising his hands defensively. The Cloaktower mage did not understand, how could he?
"We serve the King of Shadows, pawn of Neverwinter." The woman smiled coldly. "Garius serves him too, though he does not know it yet" Phaedra tensed. She did not like the sound of this. Garius had claimed mastery all along, but it seemed the Shadow Priests in the end saw things differently. And this ritual might yet have effects even Garius had not foreseen…the woman's words…being "reborn". No matter what that might turn Garius into, no matter if it caused him unending anguish or forced him to the realisation that he had been manipulated all along, the final terrible irony…none of that mattered to Phaedra. She didn't truly want Garius to suffer, she just wanted him dead. She just wanted it to over. "The King of Shadows has guided Garius to his fate" The woman murmured, her voice trembling with ecstatic bliss. "Used his greed and ambition to lead him unknowingly to paradise. Garius is blessed above all. He will join with the King of Shadows, become one with the eternal dark, ever living, ever serving"
"Not if I stop it" Phaedra snapped, sick suddenly of arrogant villains, and their endless monologues. She threw up her hands, and fire exploded across the room. Immediately the woman drew back, hissing like a scalded cat, she crossed her arms and the shadows all around her rose up like a shield. Instantly her three cohorts threw themselves into the fight with the reckless abandon only true fanaticism could bring.
The fight, in the end, was short and brutal. The Shadow Priests threw everything they had into the fray, webs of shadow, quick, stabbing darts of darkness, melding their power like it was a sword upon the anvil. But they were outnumbered, and even what subtlety they could muster was not enough against not merely Phaedra's power, but ally to it Sand's, Vale's, and the half-dozen Cloaktower mages and even four priests channeling the King of Shadows in this terrible place where his power was so strong could not stand against that. Even when the woman, the priestess, held back all of Phaedra's fire with her spindly skeins of her shadowy defences, Khelgar suddenly appeared from behind Phaedra and, with the strength of the Ironfist gauntlets, ripped one of the crumbling old wooden tables from the floor and flung it at the priestess. She gasped, stumbling back, her shadowy shield split apart like glass, and Phaedra's power poured in. It spilled like molton liquid into the seam, so that it erupted into the priestess and engulfed her in flame for a brief second; and then she was gone, none of her fearsome devotion enough to save her. Maybe she had been the leader of these shadow priests, or at least the one closest to Garius, perhaps the one guiding him, but none of that mattered anymore. The other priests fell soon after, one to a particularly gruesome spell of Sand's that, wreathing him in a nimbus of transformative magic, poured liquid stone through his veins. With one last horrific cry, he became stone…stone that crumbled away the moment Sand lowered his hands with a satisfied smirk. Vale and the Cloaktower mages swept the last two away in a torrent of light and scintillating energy that blasted through the room with gale-force power.
"Did you hear what she said?" Vale gasped out, with a glance at Phaedra, seeming almost staggered by her impassivity. "Seems like we don't have a moment left to lose"
"He's down there" Phaedra nodded quickly to the dungeaon door. "Waiting." She wasn't sure how she quite knew that Garius was expecting her. Were their thoughts still entangled? She felt another surge of revulsion, of outrage. He had to die; she had to burn him from her mind. Brushing past the others, she quickly led the way down the stairs, and pushed the creaking door aside. The sheer strength of dark power, of the sense of complete wrongness, that streamed forth the moment she pulled the door aside, almost felled her, but she managed to hold fast against it. Gods help her but no ritual was going to stop her getting to Garius. In a moment the sense of power ebbed a little, and she forced herself to step forward, into complete darkness.
The dungeon opened out beneath her. A passageway lined with cells, including the one which had held her earlier this night, led forwards. The sheer destruction had not ravaged the underground as deeply as it had upstairs; there were even chaotic towers of boxes pushed up against the walls, no doubt supplies from the siege that had ultimately destroyed Crossroad Keep. But there was more, and there was another doorway at the end of the corridor…through which Phaedra glimpsed an unnatural glow that made her head ache as she gazed at it. But still she forged onwards, through the aching tide of power that poured through the corridor from that doorway, growing stronger as she struggled through it. She was vaguely aware the others were with her. But the struggle was her own, just as what was to come when she finally entered the room beyond this one, would be hers alone.
But eventually she reached the doorway, and she stumbled into a shocking scene illuminated all by that sickly glow, that almost had more the quality of an absence of true light. Across the floor of the huge open cell that had almost the dimensions of a hallway and not a prison gleamed a vast magical sigil that she suddenly remembered from a dream. Traced in an unearthly purple gleam, it spread with aching complexity, spider-like, across the stone floor. Runes danced amidst its contours, seeming to move and change shape even under Phaedra's eyes. At each of the cardinal points of the circular shape that formed the centre, a compass-like design stood a Hostower mage, uniformly garbed, their ornate robes sweeping about them in a blisteringly cold wind. Their eyes were manic with the power that was travelling through them, their faces aglow with the intensity of their concentration, their hands all raised, and rays of howling energy, a sickly purple in colour, exploded from their clawed fingers and arced towards the centre of the design. There standing upon what seemed a pool of pure darkness that seemed to stir and undulate under his feet, was Garius in the same sumptuous black robes he had worn before. About his shoulders a cloud of energy blazed like another collar set upon his neck, but beneath his feet the darkness yawned, the darkness of something so utterly wrong…it was more than simply light's antithesis, it seethed with purpose, a ghastly life all its own. This must be the true substance of the king of Shadows.
"Phaedra" Garius said, almost conversationally, and his voice carried above the howling surge of magic with its characteristic piercing intensity. "I ought to have known you would not take the sensible route and give up" He smiled thinly. "So stubborn, just like her."
"Enough of this, Garius!" Phaedra screamed, throwing up her arms. Her hair whipped into her face from the currents of power sweeping through the room. "How my mother ever loved you I will never know…but I…"
"Oh?" Garius shook his head, almost pityingly, as if he regretted the necessity now, that had brought them here. As if he now wished they could simply have met as two equals, without Esmerelle and his insanity between them. "I think at last I can tell you why she loved me" He smiled again, as if he knew now that everything he had done had been a waste, and suddenly the irony of it was in his eyes, and it amused him at the last in his final madness. "Power. It was power, of course, that attracted her, enraptured her, like the moth to the flame. In the beginning I seemed to her a man with that kind of power, so she toyed with me for a time. Until, of course, she outgrew me and then I could no longer amuse her perverse will." Phaedra reared back; impossible, and yet…what Daeghun had suggested…and Esmerelle's dismissal of Duncan's affections. Had, she thought appalled, Duncan simply not been powerful enough for her mother?
"I'm going to kill you, Garius" Phaedra whispered.
"Understandable" He nodded. His steadiness was maddening. "I'd do the same thing in your position, no doubt. And yet…suddenly I'm not so sure you really need to kill me at all." He said gently, as if almost sorry to disappoint her. "This ritual seems to be doing a good enough job. The King of Shadows may just have double-crossed me." The Hostower mages stirred at that shocking announcement, but they seemed almost mesmerised by the ritual, bound up within it so that even if they had the self-possession to break away, the malevolence within its magical liturgy would not let them.
"I think I'm going to put this arrow through your heart just to be sure" Phaedra snapped, drawing her bow, and slipping an arrow through it with one fluid motion. Garius faced it with equanimity, even though Phaedra suddenly found her hands were shaking almost too much to aim properly.
"I think Esmerelle already stopped it long ago, I'm afraid, but you can do your best to finish what she started" He said softly. "It seems right that way, doesn't it?" Phaedra tried to aim, to fire, but her fingers trembled so much that she could barely grip the bowstring. Was it this power aching in her skull that held her back? But all she needed to do to end that was fire, kill Garius like she'd sworn she would. Yet somehow now, faced with him and every horror he had done to her, she couldn't. Despite all her resolve, her determination, the trauma of everything she had endured with him was still too strong, still so invasive that it could seize her muscles in this paralytic trembling.
"What are you waiting for?" Bishop snapped from beside her, as Garius watched under hooded eyes, as if he knew something about the both of them that neither of them did. She turned towards the ranger, raising her shaking, helpless fingers.
"I can't…" She gasped. And then a vast, yawning groan arose in the room, as if something dark and vast and hungry was being born, forcing its way through the void beneath Garius' feet that rose and fell like a tide, spilling across the summoning circle that contained it. Just as suddenly energy lanced upwards from Garius' form, framing him in incandescent purple light it hit the top of the room with a boom like thunder in a towering cloud of electricity. From there it spread, arcs of lightning snapping and crackling, across the ceiling, alight with evil power. A wave of force ricocheted through the room, shaking the dungeon around them, and sending streams of dust pouring from the ceiling as the fortress above trembled at its foundations. Phaedra staggered, reeling back from the aching intensity of the ritual before her, and fell into Bishop, who savagely grabbed her by the shoulder and held her reeling body upwards, and faced her, his tawny eyes ablaze with the dark magic that was reflected within them.
"By the Hells" He snarled into her face. "Finish him, damn it!" She glanced back at the ritual, and saw the four Hostower mages each suddenly surrounded by a hellish nimbus, purple flames that wreathed their shuddering forms in dark power, their mouths suddenly open in screams that never left their throats, as the shadowy centre of the ritual rose and fell and blazed until even Garius was nothing but a faint insubstantial shadow against a roaring, howling storm of power breaking through the dungeon. She seized her bow again, and, fighting through the incapacitating shivering, and through the blazing light and sweeping tides of power that blazed in the room, sending her dress and hair flying all around her, she found Garius again, standing amidst the swelling tides of dark magic. She was stronger than this! Stronger than what he had done to her! And, at last, she let the arrow fly. And it went, straight and true, through the tides of cold fire and shadows swarming around him, exactly where it had been aimed, to that pinpoint in Garius' chest. The moment it struck, an agonising shudder ran through the whole room. Garius staggered, raising his hands to his chest, and purple fire vomited forth through the room in an unstoppable surge, sweeping through the room in a vortex of sweeping power. Phaedra fell back, cowering against the wall, desperately trying to shield herself…what had she unleashed? The power was unbearable, sheer cold emptiness, but which had a life, a will, and an unstoppable hunger to devour. And then Garius stumbled through the storm, across the cracking, dissolving summoning circle, his hands clasped to his chest…blood dripped to the floor. Phaedra tried to scream, but her voice was strangled in her throat. How was he still alive? She had…struck him right in the heart…but there he was, wreathed in cold fire, crackles of lighting dancing around him. In their effervescent light she almost thought she could see Garius' bones standing out against his flesh, alight with a horrific glow.
"What…have you done to me?" He gasped. "Phaedra…" And then he fell back, and hit the floor in a swirl of black robes. Instantly the screams of the other Hostower mages echoed through the room, suddenly audible, discordant, and impossibly loud. They were all of them wrapped in fire and light, of that same ghastly purple hue, and shadows danced around them, hungry and devouring, darting through their skin, wrapping them in cords of darkness. But then, one by one, they also collapsed, dead, within the searing coils of fire and light. And the howling void of darkness at the centre of it all began to pull back, through the summoning circle that was sending streams of light and lightning through the air as it strained to hold back the unimaginable explosion of negative energy. The power was draining out of it, without Garius and his cohorts to hold it here. Phaedra watched, paralysed from the other wall, as the whole crackling structure of lightning was pulled back through the circle, and all the fearsome powers that had accompanied it were dragged with it. It only took a few seconds more. And then suddenly, shockingly the void in the centre closed in on itself. A last screeching, discordant surge of power swept past Phaedra, sending her head, and something in her chest she suddenly realised was the shard, aching with agony, and then in the next instant it was gone, it was over. The room was silent, and empty of all but the bodies of the five mages, lying all upon the stone floor, and they too were silent and empty entirely. Sickened, Phaedra found her gaze travelling over their pale, bleached skin, their open, unseeing eyes, their faces twisted in agony. And Garius…he was lying there prone before her, with her arrow in chest, and blood flowering upon his rich silk robes. He was dead. Phaedra looked away again, feeling like she was about to cry, but no tears came to her dry, sore eyes. It was over. But it almost felt like it was too late; the damage was already done. He'd touched her, wounded her…deeper than the skin, forced her to be aware of just how vulnerable she was…maybe the scars from that would never fade. But at least he would haunt her no longer. Now she just needed to start picking up the pieces.
"By Mystra" With an exclamation of shock, Vale and the Cloaktower mages spread through the room, the sun elf examined one of the lifeless bodies with horror. "What in the hells was he doing down here?"
"What you see here is the price one pays when attempting to use power without the means to control it." Sand murmured significantly, joining Vale by the dead body of the prone Hostower mage, hovering over it with clear distaste, and yet undeniable curiosity. Phaedra raised her head slowly; was that a lesson for her from Sand at this moment? Just what she wanted…
"I'll get through to Nevalle that we're done here" Vale nodded quickly, business-like once again, quickly leaving all his misunderstanding and mystery to those higher up the chain of command, like a good servant of Neverwinter should. "We'd better clean this up before one of the Neverwinter Nine gets here; let's start by hauling this Luskan filth out of the Keep first…"
"We'll assist you" Casavir offered, and Khelgar stepped up alongside the paladin to do likewise. As Casavir passed Phaedra, she grasped at his shoulder, and he immediately glanced at her. Blessedly, there weren't any questions in his piercing blue eyes, though he and all of them deserved some answers from her now Garius was dead, only his usual aching compassion and concern for her well-being. Nevertheless answers would have to wait, for now there was only space for one anxiety, one pressing necessity in her mind, and on her lips.
"Burn them, Casavir" She whispered, leaning against his armoured chest, so that her lips were near his ear. "Make sure you burn all of them." Casavir nodded grimly, thank the Gods he understood. If there was the slightest chance that the ritual had the kind of the effect that the Shadow Priestess had suggested it would, she would not allow there to be anything of Garius left to be 'reborn'.
They set a pyre outside the walls of Crossroad Keep and it burned good and strong, despite the winds that buffeted the lonely hillside as dawn poured grey and misty over the remote fortress. Amidst the flames, Garius and his four cohorts, burned, with the shadow priests thrown in for good measure…the bodies lay under a heap of the dark wizard's possessions that they were using as fuel; magnificent silk robes that crackled and sparked in the fire, linen sheets and fur bedding, a few pieces of exquisitely carved furniture he'd brought over from Luskan broken into matchwood. It was all of it the kind of wealth and luxury that any Docks rat in the City of Sails would have killed for, and Garius, with typical Hostower arrogance, had carted it with him into the wilderness of Neverwinter, and now they were burning it upon his corpse. Bishop smiled for a moment coolly, that thought did appeal to him. It should have been simpler though. Another enemy dispatched, a Hostower mage of all things, one of the circle who made Luskan what it was…but looking down again into the crackling, snapping fire, Bishop found himself less satisfied than he should have been with their little adventure. Phaedra had, in a dead-pan quiet voice, revealed that her mother had been hitched to Garius years ago, before she was born in fact. It explained a lot of things, enough to let the druid, the paladin and all the rest of them coo and fret, but it wasn't the whole story, not by a long shot. And it sure as the Hells didn't explain what had happened when Bishop had met Garius at the foot of the tower in which the mage had been holding Phaedra captive, and what Garius had said to him there:
He'd made his way into the derecript castle through a broken window, evading the Luskan soldiers as easily as he'd ever done in the early days. But he knew that was the easy part; he'd seen Luskan garrisons first-hand, he'd meticulously learned how they worked and how to exploit every single weakness, however small, that they had. But a Hostower mage was an unknown, everything about Garius was a mystery. Including why he was so obsessed with a simple farm-girl from the swamps, with more bluster than sense and her scrawny self-righteousness. One thing was for sure, she wouldn't be executed, or handed over to the soldiers for their amusement, the way that the pitiful wenches that occasionally strayed into Luskan patrols in the Borderlands were. That meant she was somewhere in here. Not the dungeon, too obvious…and Garius, if what Bishop knew of his dealing with Phaedra was any indication, had a flair for the dramatic. He'd seen no lights in the east wing from outside, but there had been fire in one of the towers, to the east side. A good place to start. Carefully he made his way along the silent passageway. Crossroad Keep seemed almost entirely unoccupied, but even Garius had to have some hangers-on, maybe even that bitch of an ambassador, and Bishop was in no mind to encounter her again. He rounded a corner, watching his back as he did so…and felt for the stair behind him with one foot. Ah…the smell of burning, from upstairs, like a bonfire, definitely Phaedra's style. He was about to turn and make his way up, without even giving his surroundings a cursory glance…and then Garius walked out of the shadows under the stairs, where he'd been standing so silent and still that he might as well have been invisible, his thick black robes making him seem almost one with the darkness. Despite never having seen the wizard, Bishop knew right away who he was facing, exactly whose presence he'd entirely missed because he'd been too damned focused on Phaedra…again.
"Shit!" Swearing, he moved lightning-fast, in one instant he pulled his bow from his back, and aimed it right at Garius' head, an arrow lay between his fingers in the next. Even so he knew he hadn't been fast enough. Garius was a wizard, a Hostower archmage. If he wanted to, he could have killed Bishop in a second, but he hadn't. And so Bishop hesitated, holding the arrow aimed at Garius' pale, bulbous head.
"Don't waste your energy, ranger" Garius said, soft and cool, his voice a dry serpentine slither. "I'm not your enemy. We both want the same thing…" He paused and Bishop noticed something curious about his presence, he looked brittle…almost as if he was about to shatter in on himself.
"Oh yeah?" Bishop sneered, holding the arrow firm. Even though he knew enough about magic to know it wouldn't do him much good, he wasn't about to show any weakness to this man "And what's that?" Garius must know him from some sense of what Phaedra had experienced, the things they'd shared in this strange exchange of thoughts, which was a little uncomfortable but not unexpected.
"Phaedra…" Garius rasped softly, a long pause after that made Bishop about to answer scornfully on that basis alone. But then the dark wizard added an addendum, so soft it was barely audible. "Out of this fortress."
"Not true" Bishop snapped. "I want you and every other Luskan bastard in this place dead."
"Is that so?" Garius looked up at him exhaustedly. "Well you won't have to wait long for that." Bishop frowned, but Garius offered him no explanation for his cryptic fatalism. "Take her away from here, ranger" He said instead. "Forget the rest of the fools gathering outside the gate."
"Easy" Bishop shrugged. "But there's nothing in it for me. I'd rather put an arrow in your head and end it now…" He ran his fingers through the fletching of his arrow warningly.
"If you even could…" Garius muttered coldly, and something in Bishop, despite himself, respected the old man's sheer palpable sense of mastery. And then the ancient archmage reached into the folds of his robe and withdrew a single rusted key, which he offered to Bishop. "There" He said "You'll need this. And yes, she is upstairs, and she is utterly vulnerable. She'll welcome you like a saviour, ranger." Grudgingly Bishop seized it, without ever lowering his bow. "You may think you're the one in control of this, but you're not" And then Garius suddenly leaned in towards Bishop, his wrinkled, pale features pinched, as if he was seized by a sudden impulse to sob, but what was left of him was just too withered to give in to it. His voice was hoarse, ragged. "She leads you on, she makes you think you're the one who has her where you want her, but she's always been two steps ahead, and it's been her dance all along. If you love her, you've already lost at her game."
"I don't love her" Bishop snarled, then fell silent, unsettled by the intensity of his reaction to Garius' insinuations. Was he really here because he'd felt that this man, this pathetic ruined old man had challenged him by luring Phaedra away under Bishop's own watch? Judging by the state Garius was in, Phaedra had beaten him good and proper at whatever game he thought he was playing with her. And Bishop certainly wasn't playing the same game.
"Well then get away from her before you do" Garius muttered, withdrawing slowly into the darkness. "She'll make you love her, before you even realise its happening, and then you will be her's." And then he simply turned his back, seeming almost to suddenly forget that Bishop was there, and walked away down the corridor on unsteady footsteps. Bishop considered firing an arrow into his fleeting back, but he knew the wizard would likely end him before that shot hit; and besides he had what he wanted. This key, Phaedra…that was all that he was here for; Garius, Garius' cryptic words, none of them meant anything to him; it was all nonsense, insane ramblings. Phaedra couldn't make him love her, not like she did the rest of her merry band, he knew far better than her, than Garius. He closed his fingers around the key.
Bishop glanced down at the key still held within his fingers. What Garius had said was worth less than nothing. Loving her…Phaedra of all people, or any useless wench for that matter…Bishop didn't get tied down to people like that, no one owned him. It was Phaedra who had no idea what she was getting into, and he was the one leading her on, not the other way around. But, he reminded himself, she was the one who had kissed him, he hadn't expected that, or planned that…though he'd wanted it. Swearing under his breath, he shook his head, trying to rid it of the last remnants of the wizard's insane murmurings.
"Can I have that?" And then Phaedra's murmur sounded from behind him; instantly he spun around and met her glinting green eyes. She'd changed out of the silver gown, back into one of her usual simple peasent dresses, although somehow it didn't seem to fit her as well any more. She seemed to know it too. "The key, I mean…" She said quietly, after a moment in which they both simply looked at each other, both wary of each other, each considering the other. He knew she was thinking about the kiss, and about him finding her in the midst of that desolation.
"Sure" He shrugged carelessly, handing it over into her open hand. "What are you going to do with it anyway?" She didn't answer right away, but moved past him slowly, on studied, careful footsteps, until she reached the edge of the roaring pyre, and she looked deep into the flames for one long moment while Bishop watched her warily from the side.
"I'm going to lock the door to that room" She said, at last. "And never go back there or think about it ever again." Bishop frowned. Even if that was what she thought she could do, he wasn't convinced. She wasn't about to burn what had happened to her with Garius' body, or seal it away with the room. Maybe she couldn't. She just wasn't someone who could easily cut their losses, move on, and leave the past behind in the ashes, the dirt and the blood. Bishop had done that a couple of times, taken on new names when he had to, made up stories, and kept on moving. Phaedra, though…he couldn't see it. But maybe that suited him in the end.
"My lady…" And there was Casavir, trailing behind uselessly as usual. He ignored Bishop, who nonetheless smirked slyly for the paladin's benefit. Phaedra turned from the fire, and met Casavir's concerned gaze with alabaster expressionlessness. "We found Aldanon in the library, he was safe and unharmed. Seems like Garius needed him to help with the ritual, but whatever he told him, he can't seem to get out exactly what it was Garius was doing. But it just seems to be his usual carelessness. He doesn't seem traumatised at all, in fact he seemed entirely engrossed in the books in that library"
"I'm glad" Phaedra said quietly. "Aldanon has been a help." Bishop snorted audibly. He hadn't met Aldanon himself, but it didn't seem that way to him. Getting himself kidnapped…the old man was probably more trouble than he was worth.
"Also Garius…had been collecting shards too, it seemed." The paladin continued, slightly anxious, almost wary, as if worried that the wrong thing might set Phaedra off. Bishop thought he likely gave himself too much credit if he thought he could dig under Phaedra's surface, get under her skin. It took a certain skill, as well as a certain ruthlessness to do that. But when he did, those few times when she'd been utterly vulnerable in his arms, the reward had been worth it. And in the end, when she finally gave herself up completely, it would just be more satisfying for her close-kept dignity. "We found one, in his study." He offered, in one hand, the bag which Phaedra had left behind originally, that finely woven thing from the corpse of the Githyanki madwoman which bore within it the shards they'd collected from before and which he'd been carrying during her absence, and in the other yet another example of the silver pieces, a glinting, sharp nugget of silver with a straight edge. Bishop raised an eyebrow, the whole question of the shards had been a background issue for a while. Not that it really mattered to him; but hey if someone else came chasing after them that meant more enemies to kill.
"Thank you Casavir" Phaedra smiled distantly, and took them both in hand again. Bishop was sure he saw something change in her demeanour as she held them, glancing lingeringly from the single new shard, Garius' possession, to her own growing collection. He couldn't put a finger on it, but maybe she stood a little straighter, held herself with a little more fragility. Like the shards both gave her strength and bound her tighter. "I'm not sure what I'm meant to do with these anymore." She noted quietly. "But they seem to want to be together…so…" With an elegant flick of her fingers she dropped Garius' shard into the bag, and then clipped it back on her belt, where it had belonged, like it had never left.
"There's something else" Casavir continued, with a little hesitation as if he was unsure of what exactly to make of what he'd found. "We found someone in the dungeons; a prisoner…"
"Torio?" Phaedra looked up quickly. Bishop clasped his fingers into a fist. Torio should rot.
"Not her" Casavir answered. "She escaped, along with most of Garius' staff. Vale is returning to the Cloaktower to track her down, but she may be long gone." He paused. "No, this prisoner is someone else…something else." Oh get to the point paladin, Bishop thought irritably. "And she's asked for you."
"Forgive me, Master Aldanon, but I do not understand" Vale shrugged his thin, elegant shoulders. Standing in the midst of the old dungeon beneath Crossroad Keep, the pristinely garbed wizard once again looked a little out of place, especially talking to grizzled Aldanon. Despite the battle Vale still looked as if he had not a hair out of place, but Aldanon appeared as if he'd been dragged twice through the dusty keep at the back of a handcart. Clearly he'd followed the wizard down here, and was offering his own opinion on this 'prisoner' Casavir had so mysteriously mentioned to Phaedra.
"Very well" Aldanon wasn't cowed by Vale's evident complete lack of comprehension. It was a bit of a shock to see him alive, but a relief too. She did like Aldanon, despite his unique manner of expressing himself. "Let us set aside the broader metaphor of the stone and narrow our attention to the to fact that is has been cleft in two which, while not a fact, is a smaller metaphor than the first. You see, at first glance, the two halves both appear as separate stones, but they were both once one stone; yet not. Do you follow?" Ah, Aldanon was as coherent as ever.
"Squire Blake" Vale turned to Phaedra with evident relief as she slowly descended the stairs back into the dungeon where just hours earlier she had faced the horror of Garius' ritual. Strangely, like the rest of Crossroad Keep, much of the malice had now left this place with the end of the horrific ritual, and she was a lot more comfortable here than she might have been. "I was just speaking to Aldanon concerning the prisoner we've recovered here." Vale continued. "A woman…but not of Neverwinter, or Luskan, or even perhaps this plane of existence." Phaedra raised an eyebrow, how curious. The more she heard about this prisoner the more intrigued she was. "The prisoner has asked for you personally. I was hoping you might be able to help us out concerning her identity, or her intentions. Aldanon has a theory, but I'm afraid..."
"If you both would simply listen, the comparison to a rock, a big rock, is a simple one, almost perfect." Aldanon rambled. "This prisoner you have... it seems that she is of the same stone as the githyanki, but yet she is not." The Githyanki? Phaedra started with shock and a note of unease. They were gone, dealt with…or so she'd thought. And yet, if she understood Aldanon correctly, what he was saying was that the prisoner was…of the same people as the Githyanki, but not identical to them. "You see, both were once one people, at one time, even though time is a very difficult thing to measure depending on the Plane, and that's not counting time in the Astral Plane or on…"
"Forgive me Aldanon, but is the prisoner a threat or not?" Vale rubbed his fingers together with exhausted frustration.
"Oh I don't know that" Aldanon answered, as if that were elementary. "I do know that the Githzerai and Githyanki have been at war for millennia. That is common knowledge." Phaedra blinked with surprise, that illuminated the situation a little more, and reassured her just a little more. So the prisoner was an enemy of the Githyanki, then; a common ally perhaps? And this word…this 'Githzerai' Aldanon threw out so carelessly, something about it had an inexplicably calming effect, set sibilantly next to the guttural hateful moniker of the Githyanki. Phaedra just wished she knew a little more of this 'common knowledge'. "So I should think if your young lieutenant here..." And Aldanon gave her a formal nod. "Well met again, by the way, you seem to be everywhere... is hunted by the Githyanki, then the Githzerai, and this Githzerai prisoner, would be allies, by default. But I could be mistaken."
"Perhaps I should just speak to her" Phaedra said carefully. She felt…a strange pull towards this prisoner, the more she heard the more she wished to look upon, and hear, this woman.
"If you think it is best, Squire" Vale shrugged. He motioned to a cell further down the corridor. "Lord Nasher trusts your discretion and so do I, but be wary of this woman. She has…an uncanny air…" But Phaedra barely heard him; silently she glided past Vale and the agitated Aldanon, towards the cell where she felt…she was meant to be.
"I felt your presence before my eyes fell upon you, Kalach-cha" And then the voice sounded. One could simply call it the voice of an older woman, with a cadence that was at once strange but soothing, yet that would not do justice to its ageless thrill, as if it spoke with the weight of eons. And when it spoke that name that had become hateful to Phaedra's ears, this 'Kalach-cha', suddenly the title rang with the resonance of a truth recognised almost instinctivally, as if it had been written in the beat of Phaedra's heart all of her life. It was, she remembered, her very first thought about the name, until Zeeaire's death had put it from her mind. "Step forward, let me look upon you." Slowly, automatically, Phaedra obeyed, stepping up to the barred window of the cell. Standing, there, tall, serene and reverent as if she was within some a sacred space and not this dingy cell, was a woman, who did in many ways resemble a Githyanki. She had the same mottled greenish skin, long pointed ears and piercing grey eyes as the fearsome warriors Phaedra had encountered. And yet, she was less gaunt and predatory than they were, and instead of their ever-present tension always on the edge of exploding, her features were still, calm and serene. Her frame was narrow, bony, and angular too, with long and slender limbs and delicate, graceful fingers, but instead of being coiled around and honed towards a core of incipient violence, it was rather nestled within a subtler but undeniable air of ascetic detachment. Her costume was exotic, but certainly not that of a warrior. A gauzy veil, embroidered with a silver design at either hem, ran across much of her face and neck, and was tucked beneath each of her ears, each of which had a profusion of glinting earings. It alternatively revealed and hid her thin nose, bloodless lips, and sharply formed chin, depending on the fall of light and shadows over its surface. A phylactery of sorts hung from her forehead, a shimmering, delicate piece of white gold or platinum, glinting between her the fall of her braided hair, which was tightly coiled and pulled tight to the back of her head, and a dark murky brown. A thin cloak of cloudy grey covered her shoulders, and though her shoulders and her midriff were bare, there was no sense of flaunting display about the grey skirt that hung in waves of silk to her knees, folding like the petals of a rose, and belted to a circular silver clasp set on her stomach, or the wrap around her slim chest. Set in the centre of the latter, was a single gemstone that gleamed with an otherworldly light, and her arms were wrapped with leather and a coiling silver armlet. Phaedra had never seen anything like her garb before, but it was beautiful, and somehow…mystical. And yet the woman did not speak at all for the moments Phaedra gazed at her with wonder, she only watched Phaedra back, and though her alien features and that veil made it hard to read what she was thinking, Phaedra knew she was being considered in just as much detail.
"You asked for me" Phaedra said at last. "By name."
"Your name…" The woman raised a curved eyebrow. "Your name is not how I know you, child of elf and man." She moved forward in the cell, each step deliberate, like part of an ancient rite. "Know that it is this title our enemies have draped upon you, this Kalach-Cha, whose echoes have reached the ears of my people, they who are known as Githzerai. At first, we thought our enemies had erred, that they did not know that of which they speak. But here, now, as you stand in my presence, I see the truth." She lowered her head as if in reverence, yet her eyes never left Phaedra's face. "I am here to aid you, Kalach-cha. Now I know that you are the reason I have come to this place, this plane where time runs by like drops of rain upon the seas of Limbo."
"You've come to help me" Phaedra repeated slowly, taken aback completely by the sheer depth of importance this woman seemed to be applying to her. It seemed she had been hunted by the Githzerai, whoever they were, as much as by the Githyanki, but for an entirely different purpose. Perhaps it was the air of the speaker herself, but the words had the ring of some great destiny, something Phaedra was not so sure she felt comfortable with.
"Yes" The Githzerai woman nodded. "I know much of the problems that beset your people and mine; the reason behind these attacks upon your heart and home. Let me go free, and allow me to travel with you, as I have been charged, and all I know will be yours. Kalach-cha, you shall have no greater ally than I." Information, so this woman thought she could offer information…there was no telling which of the tangled threads of this mess that Phaedra had found herself in that she could help unravel.
"Let her go free?" Vale glanced over, a little alarmed. "Squire, after what these things did in Neverwinter is that wise?" Phaedra shot him a glance, what did he know of what the Githyanki had done? Despite her experiences, she still couldn't help but trust this woman…she was just so different to the Githyanki, to anyone Phaedra had ever met.
"This cell is abhorrent to me" The Githzerai said, with a note of cold dignity. "It is a shackle of stone encasing me…it causes memories of the ways of the ilithids to surface in my mind. I have borne this indignity because I knew that it would bring you to me and through us a greater truth will be known."
"So if I free you, you'll tell me everything you know?" Phaedra made sure, before she even began to piece together some of the stranger things the Githzerai was saying.
"I seek to know this plane, this world that I have come to as a stranger, a traveller." The woman went on; there was no chance of a simple 'yes' it seemed. "And to know you, Kalach-cha; and speak honestly to you and to your world both, so you might truly know what strikes at your heart."
"Then I accept" Phaedra answered, on the fly. After all, had she not accepted people on far more dubious terms? And if Zhjaeve appeared to have strange ideas about Phaedra's own cosmic significance, well…Phaedra could deal with that when the time came. Right now, information was what she needed. Information that Zhjaeve just might be able to provide. Because although Garius was dealt with at last, she did not believe things were over yet. There was still the King of Shadows, who the Githyanki had been chasing once. She doubted he, whoever he was, would be finished even with Garius' demise. And even if that particular problem could be left to Neverwinter, as perhaps it should have been from the start, it would be a great relief to finally know something about these forces that had circeled her for so long. She was in limbo again, and she was tired of it. If this woman could help shed some illumination, she would accept her help gladly. And there was something else…some inexplicable effect the mere presence of the Githzerai seemed to have on her. Perhaps it was her serenity or her deep certainty, but somehow it blunted the rawness of some of the things Phaedra had so recently endured. "Vale, let her go" She turned to the wizard.
"Are you sure Sir Nevalle will approve of this, Squire?" Vale moved over. "This woman is in Neverwinter's custody. I'm sure he'll want to interrogate the prisoner further…"
"Nevalle trusted me to handle this operation, Vale" Phaedra snapped, with the cold, clipped tone of command she barely recognised in her voice. "And she's offering to share her information willingly, isn't that enough? Let her out."
"Very well, Squire" Vale obeyed instantly. He quickly unlocked the cell door, and swung it open with a sharp tug. He and Aldanon both moved closer as the woman stepped towards the doorway, with the same deliberate controlled air in even the smallest gesture she made. She ignored them almost completely however and her eyes did not leave Phaedra's face, yet far from being unnerving Phaedra found the intensity of her gaze…strangely compelling. It was almost hypnotic.
"My utmost thanks, Kalach-Cha" She said as she reached Phaedra. "Shall we step outside into the clear air, and see this land for which you and your people have shed blood, that I might know the strength of your duty? There I shall make known to you what the lore of my people reveals."
"Wait, who are you?" Phaedra blinked…somehow it hadn't seemed necessary to ask until now, as if all of the woman's talk of knowing had rubbed off on her, and she really did think she knew enough about her to trust her as completely as she, strangely did. "I mean, what's your name?"
"I am Zhjaeve" Came the answer.
"Look" Zhjaeve motioned, with a graceful, dancer's sweep of her slender fingers out into the fields on the plateau beyond Crossroad Keep. Standing beside her on the walls of Crossroad Keep, Phaedra found herself looking almost automatically where Zhjaeve gestured as if directed by the strings of a puppet, though in truth she saw nothing to justify the Githzerai's intense focus. The fields were the same as before, a wasted desolate expanse, their crops crushed under-foot by the Luskan soldiers Garius had brought here. But Zhjaeve seemed to find it fascinating and so Phaedra looked again. "Even now shadows fall upon this plane. Yet still its beauty persists" And then, guided by the voice of the Githzerai whose carefully considered intonation gave it an undeniable sway, she began to see it anew. It was indeed beautiful…simple, a little devestated, but still beautiful. Look at the gentle sweep of the hillside, or the exquisite stillness of the field under the morning. Maybe it was the simplicity of it, or perhaps the potential…new growth could come here, despite the lengthening shadows. Whatever it was, Phaedra found her mind thrilled to Zhjaeve's words. "It is not surprising to me that our enemies wish to mar this place with their blades and their war" Zhjaeve continued.
"'Our' enemies?" Phaedra raised an eyebrow questioningly at the pronoun. "You know them as well, then?" It was Zhjaeve who had led her to climb here, up onto the walls of the Keep, and she'd found it unexpectedly restorative. Indeed the whole fortress, cleansed of Garius' malice, seemed less menacing this morning, and more habitable, which was rather fortunate, as Vale had made it clear they were expected to remain here until Sir Nevalle reached them with further instructions, whatever that meant.
"Know this; the signs of this conflict you have witnessed are not where the threat upon your world begun." Zhjaeve said, and Phaedra braced herself for a long, ornate explanation. "They are but glimpses of things that travel well into the past and the present. It is all part of a greater war, a war almost as great as the one that split my people on the sword of Gith long ago, and the tragedy is tied to such a blade." Again she gestured out into the courtyard, and this time the precision of her gesture was such that it was the seeping shadows behind the farmhouse and stretching out beyond the trees that were highlighted to Phaedra's eye. "These shadows you see" She continued. "There is a Lord who dwells in darkness with them. And he has fought on this Plane before against those who have embraced Gith's hatred, the githyanki."
"The King of Shadows" Phaedra said quietly, there was nothing new yet. And yet Zhjaeve's words imbued this man with an even greater cosmic threat than Phaedra had suspected so far, though of course Zeeaire's last words had threatened something of the sort.
"Indeed, it is this Lord, this King of Shadows, whose malice lies so deep across your world as his power waxes that it attracted the attention of the Githyanki and of my people" Zhjaeve went on. "The Githyanki came to this world for vengeance. He had attacked them years ago, attempted to cast his shadows upon their fortresses in the plane beyond"
"He attacked the Githyanki?" Phaedra gasped. "On the Astral Plane?" Up until now, despite the power and religious devotion of his followers, she still hadn't suspected that the King of Shadows was more than a powerful warlock, but…plane-walking, leading armies against the Githyanki…these were extraordinary things, even for a warlock. Could he be more dangerous than she had even suspected?
"The story of the King of Shadows runs deeper and darker than you have known." Zhjaeve read the exact meaning from her shock. "But you must uncover his secrets, if we have any hope of defeating him."
"Wait…" Phaedra turned, and for the first time the spell of Zeeaire's absolute certainty was broken, and she realised that the Githzerai had been directing her towards taking on the burden of destroying the King of Shadows herself…as some kind of cosmic heroine. Yes, the King of Shadows concerned her, after all she'd done more than anyone to face him so far. But Neverwinter, people like Vale, were far more qualified to 'uncover' the knowledge they needed and implement it. There was a difference between reacting to the charges given to her, find out about the shards, or to the blows of fate, saving Shandra from Zeeiare and defending herself from Garius, and actually charging into full-blown combat with a dark villain or, in essence what Zhjaeve seemed to be implying, trying to save the world. It was a fine line she had just managed to walk so far, but plunging so far from it scared her. "You want me to face the King of Shadows, fight him myself?"
"Kalach-cha, what else can you do?" Zhjaeve looked at her over her veil, intently. She seemed almost surprised, a rare disturbance in her serenity, that Phaedra was questioning her. "Each day he grows in power. He can already make his presence felt beyond his chains. The advantage is his."
"Yes, I know…" Phaedra glanced away, out into the distance, towards the Mere, and the breeze lightly caressed her face, sending her hair dancing. "I have felt…his influence, seen…its effects on my home, my people. But he is too strong for me, for one person to fight alone. I've done…as much as I can, more than anyone could expect of me. And now Garius is dead…I'm not sure I can do anything else."
"If you do not, then everything you see before you will fall to shadow" Zhjaeve said categorically. "And your home, everything you love, will die." Phaedra turned back to her, and stared at the Githzerai with shock and horror. What made her so completely, utterly certain? And certain she was, her voice had the cool solidity of granite, and was just as unforgiving. "You doubt me, and that is because you do not know me" She continued. "I am a Zerth, and I swear upon the circle of Zerthimon that what I speak I know to be true. And this King know that he threatens us all"
"I…don't doubt you." Phaedra said quickly, rather flustered by Zhjaeve's intensity, as well as by a flurry of alien words. "But I don't understand you. Why does it have to be me, specifically me?"
"This title of Kalach-cha, do you know it?" After a moment's pause, Zhjaeve continued with a seemingly unrelated point, but Phaedra knew that the the Githzerai was pointing to something.
"I assumed it was an insult, something to do with stealing a silver sword" Phaedra answered patiently, as if she were the student, and Zhjaeve the teacher.
"No ordinary thief would wear this title. No ordinary woman could bear it. You wear it because the name knows you, even if you do not know it yourself." Zhjaeve shook her head, and Phaedra had a sinking feeling that she was about to hear something that would again change her life, irrevocably shake how she saw herself, and challenge once again the idea that anything she had done and had happened to her had been freely her own choice, her own experience… "Because, Kalach-cha, 'Shard-bearer' in your tongue, the piece you carry with you, near your heart, is a piece of the true Sword of Gith, forged by Zerthimon, and the original from which every silver sword was made. That sword was thought long-lost to our people. And yet you have always borne it close to you." Phaedra stared at her. Gith…Gith's blade, from what she knew of Gith, the implications of conversations with Aldanon and Zeeaire, she had been the legendery leader and almost religious figure to the Githyanki, and presumably the one who gave them and the Githzerai their name. The fact that the sword she carried in its pieces was her own sword had dizzying implications…it had to be immeasurably old, for one thing, and perhaps even more powerful than Aldanon had suggested. And it also at a stroke explained Zeeaire's strange reticence and the implications that the Githyanki Sword Stalker had another agenda which had surfaced in that final, dramatic confrontation that still was seared so deep in the back of her mind. Zeeaire…had to have known the truth and hidden it from her own followers, to seize the sword herself no doubt. "It was once said that Gith's sword once drawn would never find a scabbard again and now it is sheathed within you." There was a note of wonder in Zhjaeve's voice. "It sings, and they can hear it as I hear it now, whispering all the hate of Gith and the war she sought to bring to all the planes. The githyanki and my people are tied in a way by such a weapon... and now that weapon is you"
"Wait, so only Gith's blade can stop the King of Shadows?" Phaedra gasped. Then she remembered that Zeeaire had said exactly that in her dying moments.
"Precisely Kalach-cha" Zhjaeve answered. "Of all the silver swords only this most ancient and baleful blade has the power necessary to defeat such an implacable foe. And know that you are the only one who can reforge Gith's blade and use it, once more, in a battle. A battle that will free your lands and people from an evil even greater than the evil the illithid sought to bring upon my people. There is no other." Phaedra fell silent for a moment, and leant against the stone, trying to process the information. Slowly she raised a hand to her chest, and laid it upon the scar. Beneath the ridges of her ribs, she felt the steady beat of her heart, and something else, a slight hum, a song she'd half-heard all her life. Gently she closed her fingers upon it. And she thought of West Harbour, and its people drowning in darkness, and the Circle of druids dead or missing, and Elanee's own frightening experience of the darkness gathering in the Mere, and the Shadow Priests with their terrifying plots, and the undead walking in the misty depths of the swamps…all of it was the touch of the King of Shadows, his presence gathering as Zhjaeve had put it. If and when he reached the zenith of his power…would that darkness spread? Consume Neverwinter? So many would die…just like the people in Ember, like Cormick had. If she was the only one who could stop that, and somehow she could not doubt that Zhjaeve spoke the truth about that, then what choice did she have? She had promised to save West Harbour, if she could. And here was the chance. Slowly, achingly, she closed off the part of her that protested, that begged her to argue with Zhjaeve, fight what she saw now was inevitable. Zhjaeve was right, if the stakes really were this high, there was no room for doubt.
"And you can help me?" She said quietly, turning to Zhjaeve. At least, after so long stumbling in the dark, she at last knew a little more of the truth; another reason why she was where she was. Even if it wasn't what she'd wanted, at least she knew now. And Zhjaeve had revealed that truth. In the end she needed the Githzerai.
"I make this pronouncement to you" Zhjaeve said, and even in the midst of Phaedra's struggles, she found an inexplicable comfort in the formal, archaic turn of phrase the Githzerai adopted. It spoke of a bond that would not be easily broken. "Greater than the Bond of Two Deaths as one, with a strength that echoes the Pronouncment of Two Skies." Even the flurry of alien concepts did not shake the effect Zhjaeve's words had on Phaedra. She had a sudden wish that everything in her life could be as simple, as clear-cut as Zhjaeve's words. "I make the Pronouncement of Three in Darkness, Two in Light. As the two of us shall meet this King in his fortress, it shall become a battle of three. And when it is over, the two of us shall walk in the light, and you will taste true freedom, just as Gith and Zerthimon did, when they broke the will of the illithid at Sagrassa's End." Phaedra glanced at Zhjaeve, not missing that the Githzerai counted herself and Phaedra, but left no room for anyone else in the party. Was that really how she saw it? And yet this stark, yet undeniably beautiful expression of the vow had its own power. It seemed to have a vast, unfathomable history. And the idea behind it, that she could face the king of Shadows from the light with this unshakeably sure woman by her side, and one day she would find true freedom that Zhjaeve's words promised, tugged at her heart. "It is my life I am giving you, Kalach-Cha, and all I ask that you let me share your path with you"
"Zhjaeve, thank you" Phaedra answered, almost hesitantly, nothing she said seemed like it would be enough after such a promise. "You…can travel with me."
"Then we shall speak no more of it" Zhjaeve nodded courteously. "My vow is made. It will not be unspoken." There was a moment's pause and the Githzerai settled into a contemplative silence.
"Where do we start then?" Phaedra ventured, after a moment.
"Know that this journey will not be a simple one." Zhjaeve said. "So much of our foe remains a mystery. And yet know that a fallen enemy may yet yield the clues we require."
"Garius…" Phaedra breathed, immediately seeing Zhajeve's logic. Garius must have researched the King of Shadows at length, even obsessively given his nature. She couldn't resist glancing quickly at the rapidly dying bonfire below the walls. Almost everything was consumed. To an almost surprising extent…there was no sign of the bodies at all. But, feeling a sudden swell of revulsion in her stomach, she quickly looked back to Zhjaeve and tried to forget about Garius' body smouldering in the ashes.
"Indeed" Zhjaeve nodded slowly, her eyes were intent upon Phaedra, and she couldn't help wondering how much the Githzerai could read about her thoughts of Garius. "Know that I will pore over the information that Black Garius gathered. Are there any familiar with the scholarly traditions of your world who will be able to assist me?"
"I'm sure Aldanon would be delighted" Phaedra answered. "Though Sand would probably be more of a help."
"I will find them" Zhjaeve lifted herself from the wall gracefully, her veil and the folds of her gown stirring in a shimmering silken flutter.
"Wait" Phaedra offered. "Shuldn't I help you?"
"Do not worry yourself Kalach-cha" Behind the veil, Zhjaeve's lips turned up in what might have been a smile. "This knowing of things is my task; but I do not doubt that you shall soon have your own." And with those cryptic words, she turned away and glided back along the wall leaving Phaedra with a great deal more on her mind, and yet a strange clarity of thought that she had missed in the past weeks. It wasn't a comfortable safe certainty, anymore than being around Zhjaeve promised safety or comfort…but just like the Githzerai did, it provided a stability to centre herself around, a way to define herself anew when she needed it so badly, finding out who the woman she had missed and longed for all her life really had been. So she bore the Sword of Gith, it was easier to accept that than it might have been, and that made her the only one able to stop the King of Shadows, save West Harbour from his grasp. Heroine she was not, but maybe she could find the freedom Zhjaeve had promised once this dread task was complete, and West Harbour safe. That was worth fighting for, and she would fight for it, even if it was maybe impossible. Feeling the cool wind brush over her, she made a promise to herself as unyielding and pressing as Zhjaeve had made to her, though less ornate and far simpler. She would keep on fighting, like she had fought so far, until it was over.
Strangely the days Phaedra spent in Crossroad Keep while it was still a ruin around her were some of the most restorative she had ever known. Despite what Zhjaeve had told her, or perhaps because she finally knew the truth and knew at last where the road lay next, the goal stood in front of her, insurmountable perhaps but at least visible, she found herself possessed of a meditative stillness in those days quite unlike anything she had known. Perhaps it was simply resignation to this destiny that appeared to have been written entirely without her, but at least she didn't have to question anymore, or fight anymore. And the old ruins, despite the horrible things that had happened inside them, now seemed almost familiar, welcoming in a way. They closed around her, and for a few days they kept the world out. Or maybe it was Zhjaeve herself. The Githzerai spent much of her time researching the arcane secrets Garius had gathered with Sand and Aldanon, but each evening she would find Phaedra wherever her wanderings around the Keep had led her, and together they would talk. Or rather Zhjaeve would listen, and Phaedra would talk, telling of everything that had happened to her on this journey, down to the smallest detail, keeping only a few things, personal things mostly, to herself. Though she tended to reveal more than she'd anticipated, still she would always leave these sessions feeling profoundly restored, as if the process of revisiting her past with Zhjaeve was a form of meditation. Maybe it was. As for the rest of the party they either avoided her, like Neeshka and Elanee, or avoided the thought of what had happened to her, in quiet courtesy, as Casavir did, or in exuberant restlessness, like Khelgar. Only Bishop could and did disturb her serenity, but he was rarely in the Keep during the day, preferring to roam the wilds doing Gods knew what with Karnwyr. Bishop muddled her even more these days, with her possibly misplaced gratitude for his dramatic rescue always bubbling beneath the surface and yet the desire to forget the circumstances of that same rescue just as constant, the kiss she still felt burning in her skin when she looked into his eyes again, and the feel of his arms carrying her away from Garius' room an all too close memory, when she needed and wanted clarity. But she knew she could never avoid him for ever. Something still drew her to him, now more than ever. It was one thing, however, she thankfully had managed to keep from Zhjaeve. She doubted she could explain the whole mess with Bishop to anyone's satisfaction, let alone the passionless Githzerai's.
But, Bishop notwithstanding, she found some peace during the day. Only at night when she spent hours sleepless and alone in the old room she'd claimed to herself for the space it offered, a bedroom, once that of the lord of the Keep, in the east wing near the extensive library where Aldanon, Sand and Zhjaeve spent their time, did she grapple with the past, including the accusing portrait of her mother which she could not bear to consign to the flames. She had brought it into her room, not knowing quite why she did so, and laid it against the wall where she stared at it every night before she slept, trying to read more into her mother's enigmatic smile. But Esmerelle kept her secrets, and her once-husband still skulked the edges of Phaedra's dreams. She couldn't pretend it was easy, but she the visceral horror of it passed with time, and she no longer found herself looking over her shoulder. That was an improvement.
Still she knew that the days of rejuvenating her exhausted and shattered psyche would not last. Vale left the Keep a day or two in, and informed her Nevalle was on his way 'with further instruction', whatever that meant. Still it was a surprise when Nevalle did arrive, four days after the assault on Crossroad Keep, and he brought with him a contingent army of Greycloaks marching on foot, about fifty-strong, and a handful of what seemed to be menial labourers, with their mules and carts and equipment, tools and large blocks of stone freshly carved from the quarries trailing behind them. As Phaedra stood above the gate impassively, her dress stirring about her in the wind, and watched the parade file into the Keep's barren courtyard, Nevalle in the front on a silvery charger of a horse, she knew that something big was about to happen, here in the Keep and to her. Particularly when she met the raised eyes of one of Nevalle's companions, who rode to his left on a delicate black horse, a petite yet formidable woman whose features had an exotic cast, copper skin tinged with the sun, close-cropped feathery black hair, and large, gleaming eyes, her armour streamlined and immaculate, down to the flowing lilac cloak that hung upon her graceful shoulders. After a brief second in which she held Phaedra's gaze, the woman inclined her head with deferential grace, bowing to Phaedra, before guiding her horse skilfully into the courtyard. The respect in the gesture was foreign to Phaedra, it was the respect due to a superior. Troubled, she quickly turned and walked back down from the crumbling gateway to meet Nevalle in the courtyard along with the extensive company that already, around her, seemed to be de-camping with well-practiced professionalism, swiftly taking over the lonely desolate fortress in a flurry of activity. As Phaedra moved through the clamour, the soldiers shot her curious glances, but their overall attitude towards her was of deference and a note of awe. They moved aside for her, saluting, treating her like a commanding officer. The woman Phaedra had noticed was in the centre of it all, barking out orders that had the men rushing instantly to fulfil them. The rest of Phaedra's party emerged quickly, drawn by the noise and watched with surprise as Crossroad Keep swiftly became a hubbub of unpacking soldiers, and the setting up of a temporary camp that resembled Old Owl Well, though enclosed in the crumbling walls. Nevalle, dismounting with an elegant flourish, stood apart from it all. As Phaedra approached, he looked down his nose at her rather, as if he wasn't entirely impressed with what he saw, once again.
"So this is Crossroad Keep?" He sniffed rather standoffishly as Phaedra drew near to him. "It's certainly seen better days, and will again." He paused, examining Phaedra with a note of distaste that she couldn't help but puzzle at. He'd seemed perfectly okay with her before, while she was his underling. So what was the problem now? "Once this Keep was a key defensive position for Neverwinter, the hub of our authority in this region. It was sacked during the war against the King of Shadows. That was a dark time for Neverwinter, and since then these lands have been too long without the firm hand of our city's lordship to guide them."
"You're rebuilding the Keep?" Phaedra noted quietly. So that was what his escort were for, and indeed the civilian men who had accompanied the convoy already were beginning to unpack a vast array of tools and masonry, wasting not a moment. And it seemed the Greycloaks would also help work on the menial work, the common soldiers at least.
"Indeed" Nevalle answered. "It shall be a symbol of Neverwinter's ability to adapt, to recover, as we face new threats, not limited to this troubling resurgence of the enemy who sacked this place. As such, my lord Nasher saw fit to suggest that one of our servants in particular was most suited to govern and oversee it, a reward for service that has gone beyond the call of duty." Just behind the formal words, there was a note of grudging distaste in Nevalle's tone, as if he wasn't entirely pleased with the idea. But Phaedra was too preoccupied with what the thought that Nevalle saying this to her now meant… "Lord Nasher wishes to award the stewardship of this keep and its surrounding regions to you, Squire Phaedra Blake." And then Nevalle said it, out loud, exactly what her mind had just reached. Even so Phaedra stared at him, staggered, and he went on, filling the silence with more platitudes that his clear reluctance to speak these words to her belied. "You've proven yourself a loyal servant of the city and our lord, not least in dealing with Black Garius so succinctly within these very walls. Vale was complementary about your role in the liberation of this keep, despite…the setbacks you encountered." Setbacks? Phaedra clenched her teeth together, swallowing a retort. Far more important than Nevalle's condescension was this shocking move of Nasher's, couldn't he at least have consulted her first? Had he planned to spring this on her from the beginning? Maybe he knew she'd refuse.
"Nasher must know that's impossible" She snapped "I have no experience, no authority except that of a Squire…and I never learned anything about what that meant anyway. I'm not noble born, I'm not even from Neverwinter. And besides I have other priorities…" She paused there…what exactly were her other priorities? She didn't know yet. Zhjaeve had yet to reveal what their next step to counter the King of Shadows would be. But though Crossroad Keep had been habitable in the last few days she couldn't see how re-building a derelict fortress for Lord Nasher would fit into that.
"Squire, I told Nasher much the same" Nevalle answered reluctantly. Oh, Phaedra bet he had. He didn't like this one bit. "But he insisted. And, curiously enough, the men agreed with him. Frankly they leapt at the chance to serve under your banner; I had far more volunteers than I required. In fact, I doubt that these few I have brought will suffice for long, others were petitioning their commanders to travel to Crossroad Keep already by the time I had left and they were not the only ones. It seems, when news reached of your victory here, your repute in the city grew somewhat legendary. You are something of a symbol to the…" He paused, as if contemplating a sour taste in his mouth "…common folk." Phaedra was stunned into silence. A symbol, a heroine, her? Well, wasn't that how Sand had set things up to be at the trial, the only way to save her life? She couldn't complain that it had worked. Certainly if you put it one way, the plucky swamp girl standing up to Luskan with a band of companions of all shapes and sizes…the narrative had a certain appeal she understood, but that was nothing like it really was. Surely no one in the city, in the Greycloaks, honestly expected her to run a fortress? "And as for your 'other priorities'" Nevalle frowned mistrustfully "I believe Lord Nasher thinks that this Keep may yet be essential, if the King of Shadows is on the resurgence, as Black Garius seems to have believed and as you, I know, believe. Further Vale told me of the new companion you have encountered, the astral woman."
"Know that I am not of the Astral plane, as those you assailed your city were." Suddenly Zhjaeve was there, and spoke up immediately at what must seem to her an insult. She must have padded over, her grace making her approach almost silent, and at her appearance a visible shock ran through Nevalle, something Phaedra savoured just a little. Behind her, most of the rest of the party, Bishop and Neeshka as usual were not among them, were approaching, and it seemed like most of them had heard what Nevalle had offered her, reactions differed on that, it seemed. "Unlike them, my goal is to aid Phaedra, and through this to aid your city." Nasher tried to disguise his discomfort with being confronted by a woman as…different as Zhjaeve, but Phaedra rather enjoyed the uneasy glances he kept shooting at her.
"Zhjaeve, you heard what Nevalle was saying?" Phaedra turned to her. She wasn't really deliberately baiting Nevalle by keeping the focus on Zhjaeve…at least not mostly. She would like to know what she thought. "Isn't it better that I focus on stopping the King of Shadows now?"
"You're asking her?" Elanee suddenly cut in, her voice a shrill warble of anxiety. This time it was Phaedra who started with shock, looking properly at Elanee for the first time in days. She looked…dishevelled, her hair a tangled flurry, and unnaturally intent. Phaedra had barely spoken to her in the last week, since their argument before West Harbour, but she supposed the elf was feeling guilty about missing the signs of Garius' control. It was her habit to take things too personally, even if they didn't belong to her. She almost wished she could reach out to Elanee as she might have done before, but the hostility in Elanee's voice when she spoke of Zhjaeve boded ill. She acted as though Zhjaeve wasn't even there, instead of watching impassively, and giving no sign she was offended. Could it be…Elanee was jealous? "Why her? Don't we all have a right to decide this?"
"Zhjaeve knows most about the King of Shadows, and that has to be our focus now." Phaedra answered coolly. She felt a stab of guilt when Elanee withdrew, visibly stricken, but she told herself that Zhjaeve at least had revealed everything she knew, and kept nothing back. Zhjaeve hadn't spied on her. Whereas Elanee was still hiding something. And besides the talk of anyone else having 'rights' over her own choices irritated her nowadays. She already had enough things that were beyond her power controlling her life without the people who were supposed to be her friends trying to shoe-horn her into the role that was convenient for them. For a moment the bluntness of her thought shocked her, had Bishop's attitude rubbed off on her a little then? But it made sense.
"Kalach-cha, you may not like this, but I believe that what your lord asks of you and what the shard in your chest has made of you are one and the same." Zhjaeve answered. Phaedra felt a sinking feeling, but at least Zhjaeve came out and said it instead of skirting around her feelings and making things worse. "Know that the King of Shadows will soon deploy his armies, all of the dead in the Mere, and countless twisted servants to his designs. We will need a base of operations, and a sanctuary, should things come to that. This Keep would serve that purpose well."
"You're sure?" Phaedra whispered, and Zhjaeve nodded slowly. There was little pity in her eyes, but Phaedra could do without it. If Zhjaeve was sure…she had already vowed to do anything she could stop the King of Shadows, as she was the only one who could. If taking on this keep was part of it…then maybe…
"You will not be alone, Squire" Nevalle added, trying to be helpful but coming off condescending again, as usual. "The garrison I have brought with you, and the labourers I hired, all are under your command. And Lord Nasher appointed you an executive officer, Kana, to assist you in the management of the Keep." He nodded to the upper courtyard, where Phaedra saw the striking woman she had noticed before, still in the thick of organising the Greycloaks. "And Master Veedle had been contracted to rebuild the Keep and the surrounding areas." Further up, an older gentleman stood amidst the labourers, dispensing orders and tools with a jaunty smile. "If you wish it you shall simply be the name assigned to the Keep, a figurehead if you will…" Nevalle went on, and Phaedra felt a flash of anger. How insulting. She'd never be a figurehead, she felt a sudden stubborn urge to take on the job just to prove Nevalle wrong.
"For what it is worth" Casavir said. "I believe you would be a great leader here in this Keep as you have been to us, and if your example continues to inspire Neverwinter…it can only be in the service of justice." There was that too. She didn't quite feel the need for sacrifice as much as Casavir did, but…she did try to be good, for the people of Neverwinter as she had once for those in West Harbour.
"Owning a Keep?" Khelgar nodded vigorously. "That's pretty amazing, I'll say. Not many around who'd be able to say they've done the same."
"It would be nice to be somewhere a little more secure than the Flagon" Shandra murmured "Somewhere I haven't been kidnapped from at least.'"
"It will also add a secure knowledge base, something we've lacked so far" Sand added his agreement. "The books here I mean, I'd rather not abandon them to whoever smug noble philistine Nasher would send here if you refuse. They'd probably burn them, some nonsense about them being dangerous or some such." He snorted extravagantly.
"But Phaedra are you sure you'll be comfortable here?" Shandra then said, quietly amidst the chorus of assent, glancing cautiously at her. "I mean…after what happened?" Ah, Phaedra smiled weakly at Shandra, thank the Gods for Shandra. Amidst the flurry of political, moral affirmations only she'd truly thought of this, of how Phaedra would feel here.
"I think so" Phaedra answered simply. In fact she had been fine in the Keep for the last few days; avoiding the tower room and the dungeon where Garius had died suited her fine. And if she continued to do that, staying in the Keep would not be so hard. Besides running from this place wouldn't fix what happened to her and she couldn't fool herself into thinking that. At least maybe with the Keep to handle she would be busy enough to distract herself. "Sir Nevalle…" She began formally, before pausing once again, still reluctant to speak the words that would make this place her own. If Zhjaeve was right, and as always with the Githzerai Phaedra somehow could not doubt she was, then this was her duty. She still felt a creeping doubt, though. Not simply whether she was capable of doing this, but if she could handle being tied down in such a visceral visible way. If she accepted this, Neverwinter would have a hold on her as never before. No more could she wander as she had, flitting between the city's service and her own goals, and no more would she able to fool herself into thinking that she had a choice to leave it all behind. Well, there was little chance of that anyway, knowing what she knew now. But still, it felt like another step down a road she hadn't wanted to take, and an impossibly large one too. And what would Bishop think? She tried to visualise his reaction, no doubt contemptuous, before stopping herself with her own flash of visceral contempt, halfway through. Why did Bishop occur to her, now as always? He should have been the last thing she thought of, and she didn't answer to him anyway. Who cared what he thought? And yet she knew she did. But as if in reaction, her stubborn nature revolted against the dictates of Bishop's opinion, and she turned back to Nevalle. As she did so, though, her gaze travelled over the the men working hard all around them, and she saw suddenly how they were all looking to her, how they were here because of her. These were ordinary young men, like Cormick, like Bevil, who served Neverwinter for their families and for the safety of their city, and they'd come here to make a difference, because they thought somehow that she was capable of making one. She knew that she wouldn't, couldn't, let them down. "You may tell Lord Nasher that I accept" She said at last, and then fell silent, struck by the enormity of the decision.
"He will be pleased" Nevalle said softly, seeming a little surprised that she had accepted. He was looking at her with a new interest, as if seeing her again for the first time. "The men here are yours to command, as are any you choose to recruit and train should you wish, and your tenants in the lands surrounding this place. Henceforth, you are their Captain in Neverwinter's service." Captain...Captain of Crossroad Keep, another title to add to her name. And so she grew further from simple Phaedra Blake. "Nasher has authorised you to do whatever you must to prepare against this enemy you seek, if truly he threatens our sovereignty. This is your land. Defend it, for the sake of your people, and the sake of Neverwinter." Phaedra nodded slowly, suddenly feeling a little overwhelmed by the burden of this obligation he laid upon her. But this was it, suddenly she was responsible for this Keep, and all the people within it. She would have to learn fast. But she would adapt, as she always had.