Shadows from the Fire
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A/N: I don't own Hoards of the Underdark, Neverwinter Nights, the Forgotten Realms, etc. They're all the products of Bioware and Wizards of the Coast. They also own the game dialogue I have used. This leaves me only with a grumpy paladin and her sword. It's not much of a gain but in any event, I send out my thanks to the talented writers at Bioware. You guys make it all possible.
As for me, I am but a dreamer with an idea. Do enjoy and tell me what you think.
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The flickering of the fires in the relative gloom of Drearing's Deep cast eerie shadows on the walls of the cavern despite the much-improved mood of the area. The dracolich, affectionately named "Vix," was slain and Sardis, the priest of his cult, was gone too. The temple sat forlornly atop its hill – no one dared enter, it was best to leave sleeping ghosts lie. Perhaps in time the residents of the Deep would venture forth into the place, but for now it lay sleeping. No one hazarded the notion that something was still living inside it; the brave adventurers had cleaned out everything. Everything. Cordigan had told them so.
In truth, the young paladin and her companions didn't know if everything had truly been vanquished. Naturally, the phylactery of the dracolich was destroyed, but they knew from experience that the undead could spring from anywhere. Before she left the drab, little town, the paladin would take another sweep of the temple and pray for it to be cleansed of the evil taint. That might put the people more at ease and allow them to focus on more productive tasks. A people still lingering under the shadow of doubt can never fully live. She remembered the lessons from her childhood - Drogan's lessons - well.
By Torm, what did she ever do to deserve this?
Mercutia's head snapped up from its intent gaze on the small campfire. The intrepid heroes had made their camp in a somewhat isolated corner of the cave so as not to get in the way of the locals. "Yes, Deekin?"
The kobold peered at her with wide eyes. "Boss looks like she gots bad gas. Deekin remembers one time when Old Master eats many cows and feel sick for long time. He pass gas that light whole upper cave on fire," the kobold opened his arms out wide, "KABOOM!"
Mercutia gave a breathy chuckle and swept some hair behind a pointed ear. "You were, I assume, out of the cave at the time?"
Deekin shook his head emphatically. "Oh no, Boss, Deekin be sleeping on hay stack when…AYEEE! He get caughts in fire."
A snort from Mercutia's left signaled Valen's amusement. She could hear the low, rhythmic thunk of his tail hitting the ground. She had to thank him for its constant motion; she was often lulled to sleep by its rhythmic sound as Valen took up his nightly watch. It was a comfortable routine. Deekin had first watch, Mercutia was in the middle and Valen came last. It used to be Valen first, no questions asked, Deekin in the middle and last of all the 'frail half-elven' paladin. She had soon disabused him of that notion!
"Deekin thinks yous not believe him…" stated the bard.
Valen gave a growl that could pass for a laugh. "I am waiting to learn how you survived the fire."
Deekin gave a shrug of his shoulders. "How Deekin survive fire? But yous see Deekin not survive fire. Deekin be ghost!" He hopped up and started to dance about the fire. "Deekin sees kobold shaman do this lots in cave!"
The other two companions watched in great amusement as Deekin growled and snarled about in a circle. One minute he was chasing his tail, the next he was clawing at the air. The dancing was wild and furious, with the small bard flailing his body in every direction. "Deekin be ghoooooooooostttt! Deekin be ghooooooooooost!" Spin, skip, jumping over the flames Deekin went…
…to catch his toe in a rock and fall face first to the stone floor.
Mercutia had laughed at his little tribal routine, but her sides split at his tumble. Deekin had leapt over the fire, flailed himself at top speeds next to the open chasm and yet a small stone had been his downfall. She knew his tale had most likely been spurred on by her temporary melancholy, a mixture of lies and truth for the most part. Did kobolds really catch on fire? Their clothes maybe, but certainly not their scales. Reptilian scales that is, not musical scales.
"Oh, Deekin not feels so good…" the kobold slowly picked himself up to the laughter of his compatriots. Though his foot hurt from where he'd knocked it against the rock, the pain was quickly washed away by a cool hand on the back of his head. Mercutia picked him up in her arms and set him on his bedroll.
"That's quite enough excitement, hmmm?" she purred at him with a smile. "How's your foot, Deek?"
The kobold smiled at the diminutive. "Okie-dokie, boss! Deekin be fine now."
She returned the smile. "Glad to hear it. Can't have your feet hurting on a march through the Underdark, can we?"
"Nope!" twittered the bard.
"But," Mercutia leant down conspiratorially and made a quick nod of her head in Valen's direction, "if you ever feel that you're in pain," she winked at Deekin, "Grumpy-Guts over there could always give you a ride." She shared a private laugh with her scribe before standing.
Her eyes widened in surprise when she felt warm breath on the nape of her neck. A gravelly voice whispered in her ear, "and let us hope your dainty feet fare better than those of the kobold's…my lady." As an after thought he added, "and you have never seen me grumpy."
How had he moved from his position without her hearing him? He had too much armor on and had not been in a position to move so quietly. Standing up from a prone position on the ground - in armor - was not the most sonorous sound that an adventurer could make. It would squeak or rub against itself as the joints twisted and turned. Either she had to find out the name of his smith or it was his demonic blood. The tiefling never ceased to amaze her.
To recover her surprise, the half-elf gave a small laugh to and decided to knock Valen out of his comfort limits by leaning back casually onto his chest. While this often served its purpose, it was not the most comfortable of arrangements. Her head had little support as they were too similar in height and a small spike in his armor dug painfully through the thick tunic she was wearing, but she knew he got the message.
"Aren't we the chivalrous gentleman!" she teased, her eyes closed. "Offering to carry the poor little paladin when her legs won't work anymore…"
Valen tensed, unsure what angle Mercutia was trying to play. "Does the," he paused, trying to pin his own thoughts together and put a spin to his own words, "poor little paladin need me to bring her to her bedroll?"
Deekin noted Mercutia's face color slightly. "Boss, yous look just likes one of the ladies in the books Old Master gives to little Deekin! Except yous not have frilly dress or handsome knight. You just have dirty tunic and Goat-Man."
Mercutia shoulders shook and she hung her head to hide her face. Strands of white-blonde hair slipped from behind her ears and provided a convenient curtain. Deekin had not just said that!
Valen frowned and nudged Mercutia out of the way so that he could get a better look at the kobold. "Goat-Man?"
Wisely, the paladin silently made her way back to her own bedroll. She'd watch this spectacle in relative comfort and safety.
"Yes," replied Deekin with all sincerity. "Why is it you gots horns? Is you part goat?"
Valen sighed and shook his head. Said horns kept most of his hair firmly in place. "In a manner of speaking. I am part demon... a tiefling, if you've ever heard of such a thing." He honestly doubted that the kobold had.
"Demons makes babies?" Deekin asked innocently.
The tiefling raised an eyebrow at the question and made a quick glance in Mercutia's direction. Slowly, he responded, "when they wish to." His brow furrowed in annoyance, "are you always so blunt with your questions?"
Deekin gave his version of a smile, pointed teeth glittering faintly in the firelight. "Deekin can be very innocent when he tries. That be part of his charm."
Valen gave an arrogant shake of his head. "Well, I have a weapon that can crush a man's skull into pulp before he even realizes he is dead." He smirked, "I've made corpses whose jaws still wag as they try to speak. That's part of my charm." At the memory of carnage, the blood in him seethed and his eyes tinged with red.
Deekin took no notice of the demonic change. "Deekin once have old master who eat bad mushrooms and passes gas so bad it kill entire cave full of kobolds. Deekin stick head in water bucket, only reason he alive today."
Mercutia knew what was coming next and she bit her lip in anticipation.
"I've cut my way through a hundred men, breathing in their own gore, and felt the slash of a hundred blades against my skin yet never died." Valen's tail began to swish back and forth more quickly.
Mercutia eyed it with interest, wondering how it attached to his magnificently muscled frame. Was the area around it scaly? She'd have to get Valen to sit on a sharp rock so she could tend his wound and get a better look at the area. For intellectual pursuits.
The kobold's own tail moved at a much slower pace. "Old Master roll over on top of Deekin once while he sleeping. Old Master be real heavy."
Valen's tail stopped. He seemed at a loss for words; the kobold's frank answer stumping him. "Not much fazes you, does it?"
"Nope, not much," and with that, the kobold yawned and flopped down onto his side and flipped over. If his faint snores were indication, Deekin was most assuredly asleep. No doubt he was happy to have won the game.
The tiefling slowly trudged his way back to his side of the fire. From the corner of his eye, he watched Mercutia's form stretch itself out. He assessed that years of wielding her greatsword and wearing heavy armor had conditioned her body into the strong, lithe figure it was today. When she thought no one was looking, she often peered into pools and streams and frowned at what she saw; either retying her hair or wiping some dirt off her face. In Valen's eyes, she was not at all masculine yet he knew that she was no frail elven sorceress. He only treated her as such to see the way she cocked out a hip and narrowed her large gray eyes. She was a very interesting character, she had gotten all his secrets from him and yet he knew virtually nothing about her. That was destined to change.
Carefully, he stripped off his heavier armor and set it aside. The leather padding would remain on, however, just in case something happened during the night. He crossed his legs in front of him and leant his elbows on his knees. "My lady?" he questioned.
Mercutia propped her body on her elbows and graced him with a large smile. He noted just how much darker her shadow was in comparison to everything else's. He saw her yawn sleepily and in that instant he felt his eyes drawn inexplicably to the length of her body. Long legs, pale skin, rounded hips and bosom, long neck, full lips, large gray eyes…he frowned. Hadn't her eyes been closed just a moment ago? He blushed. With any luck she hadn't caught his staring, it had only been a second or so anyway.
"Valen?" she asked quietly. "You wanted something?"
"Heh," he stopped that train of thought before it went too far. "We are not even, you and I, Mercutia."
"Oh?" she raised a shapely eyebrow.
"You know much of me and I know very little of you." Valen managed a wry smile. "What has made you as you are, my lady?"
Mercutia gave a grin of delight. She made a small look to Deekin before crawling across the camp to sit next to Valen. "We have to be quiet," she whispered to him, "so that we don't wake him. I'd like to let him sleep for as long as possible…he needs the rest."
"You never dote on me as such," quipped the redhead. He received a surprised stare from Mercutia and had to stifle his laughter. "A jest. I am not one to be doted upon; you may have noticed this already."
"Valen," the paladin purred, "if I could get close enough past those jagged edges on your armor, I'd dote on you."
The tiefling felt a darker blush creep up his neck and onto his cheeks. He strangely liked the banters they would exchange. It was something he looked forward to. He was not about to let her win this exchange. "But I wear no armor now, no jagged edges."
Instinctually, the half-elf's eyes lowered to verify the statement. Leather pads on his shoulders, thighs and across his chest, a tunic and breeches, boots…no, there was no way she could physically hurt herself if she moved too close. "You're right, there doesn't seem to be anyway you could impale me."
Valen smirked, "are you so sure of that?"
Mercutia colored. "You don't play fair."
"In my experience," said Valen softly, running a hand through his hair, "neither do primes."
The half-elf looked thoughtful. "You obviously haven't met too many good surfacers. In fact," she made a pointing motion with her finger towards the cavern ceiling, "I didn't even know you've been up there, Valen."
Grimly, he nodded back. "I've seen some of it. I did not actually get to spend much time on this world, all things considered. Much of my earlier days I spent in confusion. I had some... unfortunate encounters." He shrugged his shoulders in indifference. What were a few other names in the Dead Book to him?
Mercutia folded her hands in front of her. She studied her friend's face intently. "Such as?"
Valen sighed. "You really do not want to hear this story, my lady."
The half-elf licked her lips slowly, her eyes gazing beyond the tiefling's shoulder. "You know, I think I do. Entertain me."
He growled in response. "I am not here for your amusement."
The paladin gave a cat-like grin. "Of course not. Continue."
Valen shook his head, knowing he would never be able to sway the woman, and carried on his tale. "One of the first groups I ran into was a band of hobgoblin bandits led by a clever ogre mage. She figured out right away that I knew little about this world. She tricked me into thinking that she and the hobgoblins were freedom fighters valiantly defending themselves against an evil hunter who was chasing them."
The paladin raised an eyebrow at the statement. "You couldn't tell that they were evil?"
Valen turned a hard stare on her. "It was not my fault, Mercutia! In the planes, beings are seldom as they seem. The ogre may have been hideous and…well; vicious... but I had no way to know you all weren't like that, here. You may have an easier time detecting the evil in beings than I do. I'm half one, anyway."
Mercutia flinched at the remark. "You're not evil."
"It matters little," Valen waved her response away with his hand. "Anyhow," he gave a low chuckle, "it turned out that the 'evil hunter' was none other than a paladin."
The half-elf grimaced. "Uh-oh..."
"Uh-oh indeed." Valen opened his mouth to say something else but stopped. Something strange was happening. The urges were back. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. They usually passed very quickly, but this one seemed to be nagging at him. All he wanted to do was to capture the paladin's bottom lip between his teeth…he wanted to kiss her. He shook the thought away forcefully; the demon blood often inspired such ideas into his mind. It often told him to release his passion with an act of carnal lust or give in to the anger and kill everything about him. It was very disconcerting to say the least.
After two months with Seer, he was beginning to control them. A week before Mercutia arrived he had successfully managed to not even consider them. However, since her appearance all he could do was fight these lustful cravings. He didn't know why her specifically. Perhaps if she weren't nearly so good he wouldn't be so tempted. That part of him that was demon screamed at him to lay waste to this servant of good; to defile her in every way possible; alienate her from the gods; take her here on the ground; make her bleed and scream in pain…
"I'm sorry, my lady. I am just thinking of what to say. A moment, please." He scratched his head and being the soldier that he was, pressed on. "We fought, and I nearly killed the man. Thankfully I stopped to question him before the death blow and I realized the true nature of the situation."
"What did you do?" asked Mercutia, her eyes wide and sparkling with interest.
Valen gave an exasperated look, more at the urges than her. The side that the Seer had shown him was slowly making its way known. The calling was at least subsiding. He liked her hair. He wanted to touch it, to run her fingers through it, to cut off her scalp and hang it from his belt… Damn demonic blood! Why wouldn't it just leave him be! He sighed, his hands trembling. "The only thing I could do, of course." He knew the answer would not please her. "I was forced to kill both parties."
Mercutia sat silently for a moment. When she spoke, she was not half as angry or resentful as he thought she would be, but she still peered at him curiously. "Why not spare the paladin?" she questioned him. "It wasn't his fault."
The tiefling searched her face for any hidden questions. "I did not feel good about killing the paladin, but I had no choice.He was not about to forgive my attack. He saw me as evil. So I had little choice but to kill him before he regained his strength. I had similar difficulties with others I met." Valen's smile was melancholy. "I would have thought that my experience in Sigil would have made me harder to take advantage of, not easier. It was…surprising. It was only once I reached the Seer that I felt safe. She and her fellow Drow hid away from surfacers, so I saw few in my time there." He shrugged. "Perhaps it was just as well."
The paladin nodded her head in understanding. "Most people aren't used to horned tieflings running around, anyhow. Handsome ones at that, but I'm sure you'll get the hang of it eventually." She patted his hand gently. Her eyes said more than enough.
His other hand crept out of nowhere and captured her fingers. She did not seem to mind and he was encouraged to continue. "I hope so. It feels as if I have been blundering about so far." His eyes narrowed sharply. "You did it again!"
Mercutia gave him an impish smile. "I did what?"
Valen growled in frustration but the light in his eyes was still friendly. "I asked you a question about your past and we again talked about me. My lady," his hand squeezed her's gently, "this has to stop."
"You'll learn all about me sooner or later, Valen." Mercutia pushed a few errant strands of red hair out of his face and patted his cheek gently. "It is not an easy past to understand."
"No better than mine?" offered Valen. "Please, my lady, I'm sure it is comparatively normal to the average history of any planar."
Mercutia laughed, "no doubt, though I suppose I will be the judge of that if I should ever make it that far again."
Valen cocked his head to the side and Mercutia's hand retreated from his face. "Again? As I understand it you have never been to the Planes."
"Your information is false. Perhaps I have never been to the Nine Hells or some such place, but I was on the Planes…for a time." Mercutia's eyes became shadowed, "but now is not the time for this discussion. Perhaps if we reach the surface, in the sunlight…" she let the words trail off.
The tiefling gave a dejected sigh. "As you wish, my lady. I had just hoped that you might be willing to tell me something."
Mercutia knew she risked a lot by staying silent. She could lose Valen's trust or he could shut up like a book and never tell her anything again. She'd hate for either of those things to happen. She…cared for Valen. In a very un-paladin like way. The half-elf just didn't like discussing her past very much. At all, actually. She locked eyes with Valen and gave him a pointed stare. "You may ask me what you will, but if it's off limits I'll tell you."
Valen was surprised at the offer. He had expected her to just leave it be, but the response brought some measure of hope into his smile. "Very well," he thought for a moment, but now that he had the opportunity he could think of nothing. His blood made a suggestion and he acted on it, perhaps it would give him some peace for a while. "Tell me," he said at last, "both you and the sword you carry bear the name 'Frostblade.' What is the significance?" The sword did not radiate as much holy energy as people were led to believe. In fact, it felt downright evil.
A little startled at the question, the paladin glanced at where her blade lay by her bed. She could see its blue sheen and imagined the chill it radiated. "Frostblade?" she turned the words over in her mouth. The gray in her eyes melted away and for a split second Valen thought they were simply colorless, shining orbs. The moment passed, but the rest of the color in her already pale body seemed to drain away. "I can only tell you things I researched or what my…parents would deign to tell me." She rubbed the back of her neck ruefully. "As I said, my past is most difficult to understand."
"And I assured you, Mercutia, that it would be quite mundane in comparison to many planars'." He gave another squeeze of his hand. "Is this off limits?"
"No," Mercutia shook her head. "I'm just being difficult," she gave a slow, humorless chuckle. "Would you ever expect that child of an evil family to become a paladin? I was a thief at first, you know. I stole things as per my parent's instructions, broke the law up until my early years were over. But I…we…weren't always like this," her eyes took on the distant look again and her skin gave off a soft sheen in the firelight.
"The short version is this: my founding ancestor was once a great knight, travelling all about Faerûn to do good deeds. He served Torm and Torm loved him. He did great, wonderful things and because he was so great, he was rewarded for them." She looked back to Valen. "His wife and children were a blessing and he kept them alive with the various artifacts and trinkets he discovered. One such piece was a greatsword inlaid with the name Frostblade. He found it in an ancient ice dragon lair. It was long since abandoned there." The paladin shrugged. "Stories are always romantic and say how the weapon chooses the warrior, but in this case it did. Frostblade called to him and he claimed her. She slew villains of all types, but she slew innocents too. Later, that is."
"Continue," said Valen quietly. He looked down at their intertwined hands and played with one of the rings on her fingers. Did it have any significance? Was it from a past lover? She was too young to be married… "You needn't fear judgement from me, my lady."
"I know," replied the paladin quietly. "I've just come to…nevermind. You know me." She chortled under her breath at some long forgotten joke. "So the ancestor did great and wonderful things with the sword, but as time went on the greatness sank to great lows of depravity." The paladin pursed her lips in frustration. "The Frostblades, as we were know known, gathered wealth and power by the sword's reputation. People feared us and that made us happy. Wealth and power corrupt everybody; there are no exceptions I'm afraid. The Frostblades, where we were once defenders of the weak, became tyrants." Mercutia roughly scrubbed her hands over her face. "Please tell me if I'm boring you."
Valen shook his head. "No, it is very interesting. I ask that you continue."
"So polite," commented the paladin tartly. "To cut it short, we squandered our fortunes and our lives until only a few of us were left. These were the meanest and the cruelest of the breed – they were the survivors. They found evil spouses and raised evil children. This continued the great cycle."
Valen again grasped her hands and this time and enfolded them with his. He stroked her long fingers gently. She had removed the gloves she often wore, he noted. He had never seen them so clearly. Her fingers were thin and on the palms of her hands he felt several sword calluses. Though he had only done this to comfort her, other desires began to spring forth. If he could, he would take her away from adventuring and keep her safe in a room filled with plush things where no harm could come to her. Calluses and rough spots on such fair skin did not seem natural to him, but he knew that the same hands he caressed now would be about his throat if he even tried to put her on a pedestal. Primes were funny like that.
Mercutia was oblivious to Valen's musings and continued to ramble on. "…my father had the sword. He didn't use it due to the fact that he was an assassin, but it was a nice thing that he used to decorate the house with. Neither my parents were quite human, both having mixed blood in them; it is safe to say that my mother was more elven and my father more human. I do not know how they met and," she laughed, "I would rather not! That the two of them could love each other…it was a sick, twisted parody of the emotion. They did not impart this 'love' to me." Her eyes narrowed in anger.
"Is that not for the best, my lady?" Valen asked.
The paladin gave him a withering stare. "Male children received all the hype. I could not keep a family name and thus I was worthless." The words were bitter in her mouth. "Imagine their horror at my birth."
Valen's hands moved to her wrists and delicately caressed the skin there with his own battle hardened fingers. He saw her cheeks color as the rush of blood increased. He could feel her pulse beneath his fingers; it had quickened dramatically at the small touch. Perhaps he was not alone in his feelings after all.
Shivering at the sensation, Mercutia found it hard to continue. "They never had the child they wanted. I was second rate in that house and it was only going to be a matter of time before I was to be removed from the picture. Some poison in your morning gruel will do that to you, Valen."
Valen did not respond, his thoughts on the creamy skin of her body.
Mercutia bit her lip. "They knew their daughter was different, I knew I was different. So, I killed them first."
"I killed my parents, Valen."
"Valen, are you listening to me? I just said I killed my parents!"
"I was listening." Covered the tiefling quickly. "You killed your parents and then you took the sword." His raised to meet hers. "Am I correct, my lady?"
She nodded. "Well, at least you were paying some attention."
Valen lowered his gaze back to her hands. "How did you do it?"
She nodded. "Well, at least you were paying some attention."
Valen kept his gaze on her hands. "How did you do it?"
The paladin fell silent. Her voice was quiet when she finally managed to speak. "It was dark one night, the family was asleep in the house. I got up, my father's dagger in my hand, and I made my way to their bedroom. I was still a rogue at the time, so I picked the lock and then, as the peak of the evening caught up with my shadow, I slit their throats. It sounds so dramatic," she smiled, "but it wasn't!" Her eyes were relaxed to the comparative strain in her voice. "The death of a parent brings so much freedom, Valen. At last I was free of them and the curse they had set upon me."
"If I may ask," Valen was doing his best to listen faithfully, "how did you know your family was evil?"
Mercutia blew a few strands of hair from her forehead before speaking. "That had been our house for many generations. People talked, lists were kept." She shrugged. "Other Frostblades were staying there too…and once I was done with my parents I finished them off as well. By morning, I was long gone and so was the sword. Frostblade," she gazed at the blade longingly, "is atoning for the innocent blood she's spilt." She added softly, "and so am I."
Valen watched the firelight lick across her features. Her skin was shining softly, the aura of her god no doubt, but the fire's warmth had brought back the color that had drained from her. The urge now was very hard to resist. He could smell the faint unguent she had used to clean herself with earlier and the alluring scent of some faint musk that could only be associated with surface dwellers. He tried to concentrate on her words, but all he could see were the sensual movements of her mouth as she pronounced every word with care and the definition of her breasts beneath the shirt she wore as she inhaled and exhaled. His blood was rising and his hands had discovered that they could outthink his brain and had already lovingly cupped her face.
Mercutia's eyes widened at his movement and she gave a wavering glance to his approaching mouth. When she met his eyes, she was pinned in place by the smoldering, intense gaze he greeted her with. She opened her mouth to speak, to say something witty to diffuse the passion, but his hand stroked down her neck and trailed its way slowly down to her waist. Any words she were about to say died in her throat at the heated touch.
Valen came out of the trance by the small sigh the half-elf gave. He brought his face close to hers and smiled softly, hoping his eyes conveyed everything he was feeling. "You did what you had to, my lady," he whispered, "you are brave, intelligent, compassionate…do not think," he stroked her cheek gently, "that you are anything less."
Their lips were so close. The hand at her waist caressed her skin through the fabric of her tunic and sent waves of electricity throughout her body. Mercutia could feel his breath on her mouth…her eyes were closing in anticipation. She was flying in the night sky…
"DEEKIN SEE DEAD PEOPLE!"
Mercutia's head turned away in defeat. The battle was lost, the moment gone. For modesty's sake, she shifted away from Valen and dropped a death gaze on the disoriented kobold. Soon they would return to the Seer and report to her that the last of the Valsharess's undead allies were defeated. She would also leave Deekin with the Drow this time.