This is a sequel to my HOTU story, Into the Shadows. At present, I imagine it won't be anywhere near as long. It will be a 'what-happens-after' kind of story, dealing with how Valen and Jaiyan (and Deekin) deal with being the former heroes of Waterdeep, as well as tying up a few loose character ends. I hope everyone enjoys where it goes, and forgive me for putting them all through the emotional wringer again. Of course, Bioware owns the characters and the locations, save for a handful that are of my own creation.
Chapter One – Heroes
Jaiyan sprawled on her back and watched the shadows crawl across the ceiling above. Pale winter sunlight painted the low beams, and the air behind the half-closed curtains was crisp. Her shoulder throbbed, and her left ankle still twinged whenever she flexed it. Still, the angry group of trolls they had stumbled on earlier had proved surprisingly tough; the fourth had not fallen until Valen's flail had ripped its head clean off.
Afterwards, as late afternoon snow drifted down from low clouds, they had dragged themselves back to the village, only to be met by cheers and excitement and an embarrassing amount of admiration. Even after trying to tell the innkeeper that they had only begun their incursion into the troll caves, Jaiyan had been roundly clapped on the back, handed a healing potion, and ordered to go and rest while more were brewed up. She slouched back against the pillows and grinned. Their first few days in this no-name, tiny village had been slow and quiet, and strangely enjoyable. Nestled among the slopes of the Greypeak Mountains, the village was hidden away from all but the most tenacious of trade routes, and boasted little more than a collection of farmhouses, a tavern, and a temple. Something about it and its simplicity reminded her of Hilltop, and she found herself wondering if as much snow fell here, covering the roofs and gables, and coating everything in pristine white.
At the tavern, they had been informed that the monsters menacing the outlying farms were mostly trolls. After borrowing the innkeeper's maps, the three of them ventured out into the misty afternoon, heading for dark caves that proved damp and cold and crawling with trolls.
A knock at the door jolted her out of her thoughts. "Is that you, Valen?"
The door opened, and he frowned at her. "Expecting someone else?"
"No, but I was wondering if it was going to be appropriate to yell something about being stark naked."
He snorted, kicked the door closed behind him. "But you're not."
"Do I hear a note of disappointment?" She grinned as he sat on the edge of the bed, and slowly slid her arms around his waist. "How's Deekin?"
"Serenading." He covered both of her hands with one of his. "The innkeeper's insisting on treating us to dinner."
"Because we bashed a load of trolls over the head?"
She leaned the side of her face against his muscled shoulder, listened to the rhythm of his breathing. "You're not still worried, are you?"
But he was, and she could see it in his face. Worried about how the villagers might react, seeing him stride through the door, all tall and fierce, with horns and a tail and a glare that could melt metal. "Valen, love," she said. "We've been here…how long? Five days?"
"Six days. And they've hardly called the local mob in with pitchforks yet." She kissed his cheek. "Yes, they're just village folk. I'm sure they don't think you're normal. But they obviously don't care."
"And do you?" he asked, softly.
"What, care? Or know you're not normal?"
He chuckled. "Both."
"Of course I care. And yes, I know very well you're not normal. Next question?"
"But what about…" Another scowl creased his face. "What about if we go to another city, and something…?"
"Oh, is this another round of the dismal tiefling 'what-ifs'?" Jaiyan clasped his face firmly between her hands. "Stop. Now. Before I start flicking your horns so much it'll really annoy you."
A faint blush spread across his cheekbones. "Is this meant to make me feel better?"
"Or thoroughly embarrass you. One or the other." She pulled his head forward, indulged herself in a deep, lingering kiss. "Should I make myself presentable?"
"A terrible challenge to undertake," Valen said, deadpan.
"Evil tiefling." She swatted at one of his horns lightly before raking her hands through her hair. Her fingers snagged against knots, and she swore.
Before she could start complaining, Valen caught her shoulders, and turned her away from him. "Let me." Gently and quickly, he smoothed her hair out, and drew a brush through the thick, trailing strands. He gathered the tresses back and divided them again, braiding them with agile fingers. "Is my lady satisfied?"
She twisted her head, felt the weight of the plait against her shoulders. "Not bad. For a man."
He snorted again. "My lady flatters me. Shall we?"
Downstairs, they discovered the taproom wreathed with smoke, and the door barred against the cold outside. Farmers and workers and drovers were packed onto stools and on benches, and the walls fairly rang with laughter and conversation and the clank of tankards against wood. Jaiyan eeled through the first archway, Valen close behind her, and paused until a quick glance towards the fireplace showed her Deekin. The little kobold was ensconced on the rug, a sheaf of parchment uncurled in front of him, and his lute in his arms. His fingers flicked out the odd, thoughtful note, while his gaze was fixed on the parchment.
At the bar, Jaiyan was accosted by the innkeeper, who was a tall, sandy-haired man. Too many bitter winters had quarried deep lines around his eyes, but his smile was ready and welcoming, and the ale he brewed had a malty, strong taste that reminded Jaiyan of the north.
"Lass, you're down." The innkeeper grinned and pushed two tankards across. "Find yourselves a seat, and let us know when you're both hungry."
She shrugged, a little self-conscious. "You know, all we did was chase a few trolls."
"And bring back their heads, and promise to go in again and finish the last of them." He shook his head at her. "Least we can do is feed you. It's not everyday we have heroes as guests."
She nodded, scooped up the tankard, and followed Valen to a corner table. She shifted her stool closer to him and groaned. "Heroes, is it? For cracking the skulls of a few stupid monsters?"
He shrugged wryly. "We can tell them about the arch-devil, if you want."
She shuddered. "No, thank you. One searing rendition in rhyming verse was enough."
At the fireplace, Deekin launched into a wild, uneven ballad about a black dragon picking a fight with a group of red dragons and somehow surviving for seven stanzas. Valen stared at the kobold, chin on his hands. "Does he ever sing anything that doesn't have dragons in it?"
Jaiyan lifted her tankard and considered. "That one about the adventurers he was warbling a few days ago?"
"No…I'm fairly certain there was a dragon there, as well."
Dinner followed as promised, and she forgot to feel guilty, and decided instead to enjoy the beef and steamed vegetables and soft, almost-melting potatoes. While Deekin dived into his third offering, she glanced across at Valen, and saw that his shoulders were stiff beneath his tunic. His tail snapped against her shin, and the glare he occasionally turned on his plate was ferocious.
That's not a normal stare. Not even for him. "Valen?"
His gaze swiveled and raked across her. "I am fine."
She gave him a pointed look over her laden fork, but said nothing. She knew he found crowded rooms uncomfortable. He had seemed so much at ease in the wilderness, during the days they had travelled between Waterdeep and the Greypeaks, and part of her wanted to finish this troll business swiftly so they could venture back out into the wilds, where there were less people, and almost no one to stare at him.
Wrapping him in cloaks seemed to help little, since his horns were too obvious, even beneath a hood, and she wondered if his colouring prompted the stares as much as anything else. That, or the huge flail that looks like it could take down a wyvern with one hit. Which it probably could.
His tail flicked up and tightened around her knee, and she smiled. She separated the last of her mashed potatoes into rough squares, and noticed his intrigued glance. "What?"
"Does cutting it into squares help?"
"Oh." Heat flooded her cheeks. "No…but when I was a little girl, I used to try and make ramparts."
He blinked slowly. "You are very strange, my love."
"What? Once I even made part of a castle wall. With a goblin army attacking it. They were made out of carrots."
"I'm not sure I want the answer," Valen said. "But what happened?"
"Oh." She shrugged. "I ran out of potatoes, and Father told me to stop playing with my food and just eat it."
Morning broke, crisp and clear, and with the ground all sparkling with frost. Half a league's walk out of the village, Jaiyan groused to herself and stamped after Valen. The tip of her nose was almost numb, and the hand around her sword hilt was cramped and aching. The last throes of a hangover roiled in the back of her head, and the pale sunlight spearing through the tall pine trees seemed unfairly bright.
"Hey, slow down," she called. "We've got much shorter legs."
Valen paused, breath ribboning between his lips. His green armour gleamed, and he had Devil's Bane braced across his shoulder. "I forget. Sorry."
She grinned and jogged to catch up, Deekin trailing along behind her. "Forgiven."
While the sun slid above the ice-rimed treetops, they retraced their steps to the caves. Deep prints were cut into the mud here, glittering with the frost, and rocks rose up from among thin swathes of grass. The trees rattled, and Jaiyan found herself thinking again of Hilltop, and how she had felt when Drogan had sent her out alone that first time, on the trail of a handful of goblins.
Terrified, that's what, she thought. But that was before Undrentide, and the Underdark.
Black and yawning, the caverns were flanked on both sides with high rock ridges, and thick stands of ferns whispered against the stone. Jaiyan drew her sword, exchanged a quick glance with Valen. She took another steadying breath, wondered why she was so nervous, and stepped into the darkness after him. Deekin hopped behind her, with pale light glowing between his spread hands.
Inside, tall rock pillars vaulted up into the shadows, and Jaiyan tasted dampness and rotting leather. A white point of magelight floated up from the kobold's fingers, throwing harsh edges over boulders and loose gravel and the curving walls. Valen led, his flail braced in one hand, and that severe, cut-granite expression that she knew very well. Down a long stone corridor, and into a large, dripping cavern, and around a high pillar of rock, to where the trolls waited. Tall and rangy and with that odd, greenish skin that seemed to ripple beneath the play of the magelight. She tightened her grip on her sword and swallowed. Something about trolls, about the way they moved, all loose-jointed and gangling, made her spine prickle.
Valen launched at them, Devil's Bane snapping up and out. Behind her, Deekin sang, and the air whined. A fire spell whirred past her head, sank against the nearest troll's sloping shoulder. It shrieked, and flailed when Jaiyan buried her sword in its chest. She spun past it, raking the blade free, dodging the jet of blood. More fire spells followed, burrowing against the troll as it fell. Ahead of her, Devil's Bane thumped into another troll's head before arcing away and tearing through the side of yet another's throat.
Following Valen, rushing the odd troll that would dart around him, Jaiyan reflected that this seemed less like fighting and more like work. She twisted her sword, smacking aside one troll's questing fists, and plunged the blade into its stomach. When it screamed and toppled, another spell roared over her head. Work, she thought. The kind where if you get it wrong, you lose something important. Like your arm.
The flat of her sword thunked against another troll's chest, and she swore. She jerked aside as its claws followed. She ducked another swipe, and stumbled as her own impetus carried her too far to one side. Stumbling, she hurled herself away, and cringed when a large shadow swooped across her. She whirled, sword flicking up, and winced when the troll's head left its neck. She blinked through the hot, stinging spray of blood, and saw Valen, standing braced behind the troll's toppled corpse. "Oh…thanks."
"Are you alright?"
"Fine. I was day-dreaming."
He scowled. "In the middle of a fight?"
She shrugged, used her sleeve cuffs to mop away the blood. "Sorry. This stuff reeks."
"I know." He balanced Devil's Bane against his shoulder. "Are you sure you're alright?"
She nodded. "Yes. I was just thinking…doesn't this seem like work?"
"Isn't that what it is?" A wry grin creased his mouth. "Beloved, isn't that the point? Aren't we meant to be for hire?"
"I suppose." She stared down at the dead troll, at its slackened jaw and rolled-up eyes. "Do you think that's all of them?"
"Nope," Deekin said. "Deekin can smell them."
Jaiyan frowned. "So can I."
"Deekin means living ones, Boss."
She sighed. "Alright. Lead on."
They spent the best part of the afternoon combing through the caves, trailing large prints through the gravel, and surprising contingents of trolls. Some charged out of the darkness, while others fled and hid behind high columns, or between the folds in the rock walls of a deeper cavern. After lodging her sword in a troll's ribcage, Jaiyan shook blood off her wrists and mentally decided never to go monster-hunting again. "How much are they paying us for this?"
"Board and meals and a couple of hundred in gold," Valen answered. "I think it's a bit too late to reconsider now."
She wrenched her sword out and swore tiredly. "Then I suppose we start collecting heads."
A last, small group startled them when they launched out of their hiding-place behind a high rock shelf. After Valen had dived into the middle of the fray, and Jaiyan had seen far more troll blood than she ever cared to mention, they set about the unpleasant business of choosing heads.
She knelt over the tumbled body of a dead troll and eyed the thick sinews of its neck. "How many, do you think?"
"Half a dozen."
She lifted her sword. "You're carrying them."
Valen helped her bag the heads, and he did not complain when she tied four of them to his belt and firmly placed the last two in his hands. Outside, the twilight was cool and damp with low cloud. Frost already crusted the ends of leaves and branches and hanging vines, and the breath sawing into her lungs was cold. Even half-running to keep up with the tiefling's wide strides, the moon had long since risen by the time she spied the tavern, and the lights glowing behind the windows.
Beside her, Deekin shivered. "Boss, this be too cold."
"I thought you didn't mind the cold?"
"Deekin copes with the cold," he said. "Deekin not likes the cold."
And nor did she, not after Cania, and its unending white horizons, and its whirling snow and brittle, icy mornings that would steal breath and thought.
Valen slipped an arm around her shoulders and chivvied her towards the tavern. "Nearly there."
They stumbled in through the door, and Valen heaved it shut against the cold air. Shouted questions greeted them, along with wide eyes and demands to know how many trolls lay dead. Jaiyan pulled her cape tighter around her shoulders and wished her lips were not quite so cold. "They're…"
Valen unhooked one of the wrapped heads, held it up so that the light spilled across the damp cloth. "They're dead," he said. "All of them."
He threw the head across to the innkeeper, and ignored the barrage of questions that followed. He untied the other five, dumped them on the bar. Pleading exhaustion, he guided Jaiyan across the taproom, while Deekin raised his hands and declared that he would be happy to sing an ode to the brave deeds that had occurred in the troll caves.
Upstairs, leaning against the tiefling's welcome side, Jaiyan felt the feeling slowly seep back into her fingers. She let Valen walk her into their room, and watched numbly as he peeled her cape away, followed with her gloves and boots. He found the ties on her leathers next, and sat her in front of the fireplace while he added a new log to the nice blaze the maid had left.
"You know, you don't have to be my slave."
"I know." He gave the fire another prod with the poker and smiled. "Your fingers were like ice."
She hugged her arms around her knees. "I'm fine."
"You're not." He sat beside her, watched her sidelong. "What is it?"
"Nothing," she said.
"You're a very bad liar."
"It's just…" She lifted her gaze from the twining flames, looked up into his blue eyes. "I thought we were going to adventure together, and what are we doing? Killing trolls and getting cold."
"That is adventuring."
She laughed slightly. "I just…Valen, when you promised to come with me, I thought it would be…"
"Better. Not like this. Now I think maybe you would've had more fun going back down to the Underdark."
He stared at her. "You don't mean that."
She shrugged moodily, and chewed at the inside of her cheek. Not without me, but what exactly is here on the surface for you? No armies to lead or train, no prophecies to hope to fulfil, nothing except me and Deekin and the cold outside. "Might have been more exciting."
"Why I'm here has nothing to do with trolls," he said slowly. "And has everything to do with you. Or should I rustle up an arch-devil to keep you occupied?"
"Hah. No, thank you." She leaned against his shoulder, played with the loose red ends of his hair. "It's just…you hate the way people look at you."
"Of course I do. But that doesn't mean that I want to be somewhere else."
"But…" She twined a thick crimson lock around her finger. "You're used to doing things that matter. You know…saving drow, beating up devils, escaping Sigil, that kind of thing."
He laughed. "And I like doing things with you." He frowned. "That…did not come out in quite the way I wanted."
She shot him a wicked smirk. "Sounds more fun."
His arms slipped around her, and he hauled her onto his lap, her knees on either side of his hips. "I am not dissatisfied, bored, or craving any kind of adventure that would probably involve you dying yet again."
Jaiyan pouted at him. "You died as well."
"Only the once. And not because I was smart-mouthing an arch-devil."
"I was not…" She took advantage of his closeness and captured his mouth for a quick, taunting kiss. "…smart-mouthing an arch-devil. And even if I was, I think he intended to turn me into a messy smear of charcoal anyway."
"Charming." His fingers slid into her hair, teasing against the back of her head. "Now, I suppose we should go back downstairs and talk about trolls."
She sighed. "If nothing else we can get paid."
Valen stood, pulled her to her feet after him. "Is it really that bad?"
"No." She raked a hand through her hair, tilted her head back to look up at him. "I'm sorry. I'm being…silly."
"My lady could never."
She threw him a sour look. "You lying, deceiving tiefling."
"You chose me." He grinned, ducked his head, and kissed her forehead. He clasped her hands, and gently led her back downstairs, into the heat and noise of the taproom. Trailing behind him, she let her gaze linger on his weaving tail.
That terrible, unsettling knot of uncertainty was still lodged somewhere behind her sternum. She knew he would stay with her; she trusted him, entirely. So why are you still worried? Because why would a tiefling stay to be stared at and mocked and remarked upon when there must be other places that a tiefling could go, and not have those things happen?
Stop it. Stop thinking.
Someone pushed a tankard into her hands, and she heard Deekin's voice, soaring over the commotion, as he fielded questions. She could hear the wind, howling around the gables, and the stable doors banging out in the yard. She leaned against the bar, with Valen beside her, and summoned up a grin for the innkeeper. "You brew a nice cup of ale down here."
"Had a lot of practice." Snowflakes billowed against the windows behind him, and he frowned. "You'll stay until the weather blows out?"
She nodded. "Wouldn't want to travel through that."
"Winter's always harsh up here." He shrugged. "You said you'd trained up in Hilltop?"
"Yes. Everything turns white the moment autumn gets cold."
"Well, you're welcome to stay as long as you need." The innkeeper folded his arms. "Any thoughts as to where you're going next?"
"Oh, I don't know." She looked at Valen, exchanged an unhurried smile. "Wherever the road takes us, I suppose."