A.N.: This story is based on Valine's wonderful NWN module 'A Dance with Rogues'. All of you reading this that haven't played it, should. Really.
This story starts before the Dwarf City, and goes on from there. What I wanted to do here is put the main character in an impossible situation and see if she could claw her way out of it with her soul intact. Or to see how she would shatter. Because of the subject matter handled in the module, this story will feature mature themes.
All characters mentioned in this prologue, except for Riana, are the property of Valine.
Sound carried in the caverns – Riana's own steps, feather-light, rang in her ears; a persistent chiming of a copper bell. Steps trailing behind her echoed louder; like someone had banged a gong at feeding time. And kept banging it – dinner being served. By Mask's hanging sack, if someone steps on those lava rocks one more time… Fear nestled in the pit of her stomach – one hand in the air, she signaled a halt.
Paranoia; no other word for it. But it would keep them alive. Better overly cautious than dead.
Silence followed, a drawn out, eerie absence of all sound, except for the steady dripping of deep water that carried a chill to her bones. What she wouldn't give for a fire and a warm blanket around her shoulders, for the comfort of it, if nothing else. Sucking in yet another mouthful of stuffy air, Riana willed herself to move.
A whisper from her left, "Getting jittery, birdie?" She'd felt him before he spoke – the chill of a bucket of icy water being spilled over your head. His voice crawled its way up her spine, dredging up memories best left to rot. Bracing herself, Riana shook away the fear… and the hate. Not the time for it, yet.
"Trying to keep us breathing," she whispered back. "This would be easier if you'd keep your mouth shut." A fragment of a rock crunched beneath her left foot, making her cringe. Wonderful.
Vico chuckled – a picture of her dragging a knife across his throat flashed in her mind – then said, "Careful, sweetness." His fingers brushed against the curve of her waist, making her hand move towards a sheath of a dagger. "I might think you don't love me." Giving her waist a squeeze, he fell back in line.
Riana tasted bile in her throat – his fingers; she could feel their imprint on her skin, even through the leather. Distracted, she missed a step, and something snapped beneath her foot again, the echo bouncing off the walls. Impotent rage coiled in her belly. Nothing she could do about it, now – an hour, just me, him, and a dull blade – they needed to make as little noise as possible, here in the open. Stealth would keep them alive.
If only the bastard would leave her alone. Vico got off on fear, that much she could tell. Smelled it somehow, even through layer upon layer of bull. Truth was, the fear was there to stay, no matter how good she'd got, no matter how strong.
They both knew it. For as long as he drew breath, she'd never be free of it.
Her fingers traced the hilt of a knife sheathed on her left thigh – the knife she'd kept, but never used. My virgin blade. The steel still had her blood on it, the copper tang now a part of the pattern edged into the knife. She'd recognized it – he pressed it under her chin, cutting in when she'd try to move – lying there on Nathan's table when the old man had welcomed her into the Family. Had that been just three months ago? Nathan hadn't left that there – he'd almost looked surprised, if such a thing was possible. The old man hadn't said anything, but hadn't objected when she'd taken it either.
Vico's 'gift' – I'd say those few minutes on the floor are a fair price for your life – a crass joke, a message and a challenge, all in one. He was all for rubbing salt into an open wound. The why of it didn't matter, though. While her lips had vowed allegiance to the Family, her soul had made a vow of its own.
The next time that knife drew blood, the blood would be his.
And then all hell broke loose. Revenge had to take a back seat to getting the others out of that prison hell hole. Then, all of her debts would be paid. Except for one. Deep breath drawn, Riana unclenched her fingers and focused on the here and now. Again cautious, she slowly made her way down a winding path leading into a valley made out of hollowed out rock – rest and shelter, Tyr let it be empty – the others trailing some distance behind her. No traps. No tracks that she could see, aside from some smaller animals Anden pointed out. And a rock formation on the bottom that would hide them from sight on three out of four sides. A smile lifted the corner of her mouth. Far from perfect, but it would do.
"We rest here."
The ready sound of dropping equipment and tired groans told Riana she'd get no argument there.
"Norah and I will take the first and second watch." Bran. If he wanted to stay awake, he was welcome to it. At least with him on watch, she wouldn't have to sleep with one eye open. "You need your rest," he said, his hand closing around her forearm. Gentle, friendly. She never flinched when he touched her. "The gods know you've earned it."
Anden nodded. "He's right m'lady." Concerned eyes scanned her face. "Don't take offence, but you look asleep on your feet."
Bless your tact, ranger. "No offence taken." Her shoulders moved in a half-hearted shrug. "You have a knack for understatements, friend."
Norah gave Riana a pat on the back. She would have keeled over, if not for Pia's steadying hand – not an encouraging sign. "Well, Anden would never say that you look like something that a bear just chewed through and spat out."
Anden cleared his throat. "And on that cheerful note, I'll bid you good night." A nod and a whispered 'm'lady' and he pulled his lady-love to the side. Or his latest romp, if you'd listen to Norah – Anden, with his rigid morals, made an all too easy target to mock.
A smile forced its way onto Riana's face, watching the two of them – followed by a fair bit of envy. They made it look so easy, letting go. Chewing down on her lower lip, she glanced in Bran's direction. It was good – having him and his sister here, as added muscle and as people to travel with. As friends, even. Better not get too used to it, though. She couldn't start to depend on it.
Here one day, gone the next. Tis' how life was.
Bran had his own vengeance to see to. And even if she could trust him, trust them to stay, what could she offer in exchange? Except for the very real chance of Vico slitting his throat while he slept.
A blanket got draped over her shoulders – her stomach dropped to her heels. "Go to sleep, birdie." She shrugged Vico's hands off, along with the blanket. "Fine. Fall flat on your face tomorrow." Another chuckle – a breath of air that tickled the back of her neck and made goose-bumps rise on her arms – before he left her personal space.
"Drop dead, Vico," she said, keeping her voice steady. Hoping for just the right amount of bored and tired. Leave me alone. Just this once.
"Offer to ride me to death." Trying to push her buttons. "That might work."
Riana kept her silence. If only she could forget about Nathan, Chella and the others. Just for a moment – enough to slit his throat in the dark. A moment, and it would be over.
A moment that could never come – she had a snowball's chance in hell to free the old man without Vico's help. And debts were meant to be settled, not forgotten. The Dhorn would have charred the flesh from her bones if Nathan hadn't come after her. Riana sucked in a deeper breath and crouched to get a blanket out of her pack. Never betray trust.
Sleep did not come easily.
She's running through well known corridors, now slick with blood. If she stops, she's dead. She can hear the Dhorn, closing in on her.
"Father, help me!"
Bruising fingers drag her to a small storage room. She knows better than to scream – the Dhorn are on the other side of the door. When the same fingers tear her clothes off, in the space of a ragged breath, she whispers for her parents. Struggles, even as she knows she can't win. Whishing that he'd kill her.
Because she knows what he'll say next.
"They're all dead, birdie."
Fingers brushing her shoulder jolted Riana awake – blurry eyes snapped open to fix on Vico's face above her.
When he got hold of her wrist before she could drive the knife in, Riana had a hard time deciding between disappointment and relief. She settled on keeping her hand from shaking. Vico just threw his head back and laughed, kissed her wrist, then sat down to start his watch, with a grin on his handsome face.
That's why he woke her – so she would know he was there, watching her. As if she didn't get enough of his staring during her waking hours. Riana pulled the blanket around her tighter.
How long until he tired of just watching?
Merciful Tyr. Where is your justice, now?