Stay Awhile and Listen
Night had fallen. It was a cloudless night, bringing out the full glory of the stars in the sky above New Tristram. She had always heard that encounters with death and danger brought out your true appreciation for life and beauty. Valla supposed that, having fought the personification of Death itself a mere week ago, that must be why the night sky was so much more vibrant than she was accustomed to. The town of New Tristram stretched out before her in the valley below, the place where, as far as the bards knew, this had all started. The Second War against Hell and Diablo, as well as the Reaping of Westmarch. In the far distance the Tristram Cathedral was still visible. One day New Tristram might reclaim that land, but that would be far in the future.
Valla enjoyed the sight for a moment before starting on the last leg of her journey. She was tired of sleeping at the roadside or in small inns and intended to be within the town wall tonight. The veteran daemon huntress kept a sharp eye for any threats on the road, such as there had been the last time she took this journey more than a year ago. This time however, it was quiet. Raised lampposts stood alongside the dirt road, lighting the way, and occasionally fields would line the road. It was peaceful. By the time Valla reached the town gate, she had decided to stow away her crossbows. The guards at the gate recognised her immediately and ran ahead to announce her arrival, leaving the town gate open to the world. A year ago that would have been a death sentence, but Valla supposed that with the new-found peace New Tristram could survive with an open gate even if just for an evening.
She still waited in the opening until the guard returned, villagers in tow.
“Sanctuary be damned, Valla!” The big man shouted, his tree-trunk-like arms wide to embrace her.
“Hello Bron, it’s good to see you are all well.” Valla said and gave in to the hug.
“That I am well!?” He shouted, “If the stories are true, it is you I should be saying that to!”
“Are they true?” Bron said after a moment, the huge blacksmith leaning in conspiratorially.
Valla stood aside as the town gate was again closed, taking down her hood and shaking out her black hair. It was getting a bit too long for her liking. “Probably not Bron, but they are not completely fake either. It’s been a long year.”
“Raiding the Palace in Caldeum, the Siege of Bastion’s Keep, the War in Heaven and finally the Reaping of Westmarch. Many many tales reached us of the Nephalem’s exploits but those were the most consistent ones.” An older, wispier man said. He wore a brown-green robe and had an arm in a sling.
“Malachi! What happened to your arm?” Valla said, trying to divert attention away from herself. If she had a gold coin for every bard that had recounted her exploits as she travelled, she could buy her own city.
“Alas, a week ago the whole village fell under a sudden wasting sickness, so sudden that I fell from a ladder onto my arm. Everyone had a miraculous recovery soon after, but a broken arm is not so quick on the mend.” The old healer said.
A week ago, huh. When Malthael employed his modified Soulstone. “Ah I’m sorry to hear that.”
Malachi chuckled. “Do not worry yourself, Valla. I am glad to see you well, too.”
There was an awkward pause in the impromptu town meeting.
Bron cleared his voice. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“What we heard about Leah.” Bron said, his voice straining not to crack.
Valla looked around the town square before responding. “Are you sure you want to talk about this in the street?”
“Leah was one of us, even if her mother was not. We found the stories we heard hard to believe.” Malachi said, his voice wavering ever so slightly.
Valla met their eyes and held them as she spoke. “Leah did not do it of her own volition. It was done to her. By her mother.” Valla balled her shaking hands into fists and took a deep breath, using the discipline she had learned to control the anger she felt. “By Adria.”
Bron sighed. “I always knew Adria was bad business. What became of that witch?”
Valla had to look away, staring at the dirt beneath her boots to keep her composure. “I killed her, with my own hand.”
A hand was placed gently on Valla’s shoulder. She had to force herself not to lash out. “Valla, no measure of vengeance will bring young Leah back.”
“Thank you, father Malachi, but I do not need lectures on vengeance.” Valla said. Adria was at the front of her mind, and she had to force it away. It was over now, for good or ill.
The burly man jumped at her voice. “I have something I want to discuss with you in the morning, but for now I want a bed and some food. How’s the inn going?” Valla made an effort to calm her voice.
Bron smiled slightly and scratched at his beard. “The Slaughtered Calf’s ticking along well enough considering we barely get travellers these days. You’ll always have a room if you wish.”
“Good to hear. I’ll be along, I have something I need to do.” Valla said.
Valla went back out of town on her own. She was happy that the New Tristram that Leah, Tyrael and herself had left behind had survived, but she had one last duty before she could rest. After the battle in the Crystal Arch, the angels had tracked the remainder of Diablo’s essence to a small temple in the High Heavens. The Prime Evil’s form had been reduced to that of a slight human female. Diablo’s essence had vanished, leaving behind Leah’s dead body.
Valla had been allowed to bring Leah’s ashes home with her, back to Tristram where her beloved uncle Deckard had also been laid to rest.
The hill was innocuous, but Valla remembered it well. She had been too caught up in her hatred of the witch Maghda and her demon coven to pay much attention to Leah’s grief when they burned Deckard Cain on the funeral pyre. Valla had heard the stories of what the old Horadrim had achieved, but to her they were just that, stories. His niece Leah was the scholar that Valla respected. The friend she had lost.
Carefully she took out the sealed urn from her backpack and removed the seals. A small part of her warned that demons might be drawn to the lingering essence in the ashes, but if any did, they would be sent screaming back to the Nine Hells.
The wind picked up and pulled Valla’s hood down, pulling out her long braid from her cloak. The urn was heavy in her hands. “I’m sorry, Leah. Sorry I wasn’t there. I could have done something, could have stopped Adria. Something-“ Valla’s vision blurred and her voice began to fail her.
“Adria’s designs had been in motion for nearly two decades. Impulsive actions had little chance.” A deep voice said.
Valla hurriedly rubbed at her eyes and turned about. The dark-skinned man was standing behind the one gnarled tree that had survived on the top of the wind-swept hillock. “Tyrael! What brings you here to this backwater place?”
The mortal archangel’s face was lined with worry but still he smiled at her. “A mutual friend.” He strode up the hill and stood beside Valla. Wearing a long brown cloak, the only visual hint to his stature was the pommel of El’druin sticking out of its folds. “I wanted to pay my respects to Leah too. For how short a time I knew the young lady, she was every bit the hero her uncle was.”
“I wish I could have forced Adria to pay more dearly than mere death.” Valla said, spitting out the name of the vile witch.
“She would have deserved as much, but I doubt Leah would want such words at her funeral.” Tyrael said in his calm voice.
“You know, Tyrael,” Valla said, shifting her grip to hold the urn with one hand, “Sometimes it gets quite annoying how often you’re right.” Despite that, Valla found herself calmer than before. The urn’s lid came off easily.
“Any last words for her? I think she’s about to leave.” Valla said.
Tyrael reached out and touched the lip of the urn. “You made us all proud, young Leah. I am honoured to have met you and I will ensure that everyone knows the truth of what happened.”
Valla nodded along with the eulogy. “Can you say hello to my family for me? My little sister might be lonely, you two will get along great.” Valla said and upended the urn, the sharp wind carrying Leah’s ashes away.
“I thought your family had all passed away, Valla.” Tyrael said with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s a saying, Tyrael, don’t worry about it.”
“Right.” The Archangel of Judgement and Wisdom said sheepishly.
Valla and Tyrael returned together. They had dug a small hole and left the urn in the soil of the hill. Neither of them were used to keeping much around.
“And you’re sure you have had breakfast and lunch today?” Valla said.
Tyrael pointed upwards at the night sky. “I have been making notes of the movements of the sun so as to use that to time when to eat food.”
“Remind me to tell you about the shorter days in winter.” Valla said with a smile.
Tyrael began to speak, stopping in his tracks and alerting Valla when New Tristram came into view. All the villagers of the town were gathered in the town square, forming a big semicircle with Bron standing on a crate in the middle.
“Leah is innocent!” Bron shouted, arms raised. “Valla herself returned and told me and Brother Malachi what happened. She is innocent!” The announcement was met with scattered applause and muttering in the crowd. Valla wanted to slug the doubters, but Tyrael’s words at the funeral had not gone on deaf ears. Leah would not have wanted that, and it would not help.
“I swear it.” Tyrael said, his lined face as serious as ever. “The truth of Leah’s heroism will be known.”
“You the town crier now, Bron? As well as the innkeeper.” Valla shouted at the big man as he was getting down from the impromptu stage.
“Well,” Bron answered sheepishly, “I’m actually the mayor. After Holus abandoned us I stood up to the position. A least until we find someone more suited.”
“I’m surprised you don’t hold town meetings in the inn.” Valla said.
“No need to reproach the man, Valla. It is a brave act to step up for your community. Your town is lucky to have you, Sir Bron.” Tyrael said, reaching out to shake Bron’s hand.
The innkeeper-turned-mayor took the offered hand, eyes darting back and forth between Valla and Tyrael. The daemon huntress just smiled and shook her head. “He’s just like this.” She said.
“Well, thank you, kind sir. I’m no knight, but I appreciate the kind words.” After a moment he added. “We do usually hold town meetings in the Slaughtered Calf though.”
“One free pint for all but then they cost, I suspect.” Valla said knowingly. “Got two rooms available for the sir and I?”
Bron nodded fervently. “Of course, always space for the saviours of the town.”
True to Bron’s complaints about the lack of travellers, The Slaughtered Calf was empty when Tyrael and Valla arrived. More tables had been put in, probably to accommodate the town meetings Bron had admitted to, but otherwise the inn was just like when Valla had trudged into town all those months ago.
“Brings back memories, doesn’t it?” Valla said, striding into the common-room.
“Apologies Valla, but I do not think I was present at the time.” Tyrael said.
“That is true. And by the time you were yourself again.” Valla said, pausing.
“Deckard Cain had died, and we were leaving for Caldeum.”
Valla was silent for a moment, then went behind the bar and poured herself a pint. The ale was weak, but it was ale nonetheless. “It has been a long year, hasn’t it, Tyrael.”
“I have little reference, but yes, yes it had.” Tyrael said, sitting down on one of the benches.
Bron entered the inn then. He took a look at the beer in Valla’s hand but said nothing. “We don’t have any locks on the rooms, but you can take whichever two you like. I can’t imagine anyone in town would even think to be a hassle to either of you.”
“Very kind, sir Bron, very kind.”
Valla just raised the pint in response, then went back to drinking.
So the two sat for a while, the mortal angel looking about the dim room and Valla caught up in her own thoughts.
Valla put down the empty pint and stood up. “Right, time to sleep. That goes for you too, Tyrael.”
“I do not believe I am tired yet. I shall sit up a while longer I think.” He replied.
“Well, I am not your mother, but those bags under your eyes tell another tale. Take my advice.” Valla unclasped her cloak and slung it over her arm. “Take sleep when you can get it. On the road, you never know what beast will decide to stalk you.”
With that she left Tyrael to his own thoughts, falling asleep the moment she laid down on the bedding.
With a shake, Valla was awake. Her hand reflexively grabbed the hand crossbow she had put under her pillow and jammed it in her assailant’s face.
“One more twitch and I shoot.” She said, opening her eyes.
“What if that movement is letting go?” Tyrael asked. He was leaning over her bed, gauntleted hands on her shoulders.
“Tyrael, remind me to teach you how to wake someone up.” Valla said, sighing and sitting up. The hand crossbow was put down on the bed.
“Apologies Nephalem, but there is someone that wished to speak with you. He said it was urgent.”
She began taking her boots on, the long leather jackboots she had worn ever since leaving the Order. “Everyone always says it’s urgent. Breakfast is urgent too, but you don’t see me shaking the chef awake.” Valla grumbled.
“Who’s asking for me?” Valla said when Tyrael was not more forthcoming.
“A man calling himself Hans. Come to think of it, he is dressed similarly to you.”
“Ah, Lady Valla! It is good to see you well.” The man said. He was indeed dressed in the dark leathers and the black hood of the daemon hunters. A hunting bow was strapped over his chest and a bandolier held a number of pouches.
“Don’t ‘Lady’ me, Hans. We were trained in the same group. How is Instructor Ventris?” Valla said. Her mood was still foul from being woken early, but Hans was an old friend. One of her oldest still-living.
“Sorry Valla, but the Master told me to.” Hans said. A fresh scar crossed his face, but otherwise he was as she remembered him. “Ventris is well. Still teaching gadgets.”
“Well don’t. Stick with Valla, no matter what that old coot tells you. Why are you in New Tristram looking for me?” Valla said, wondering why Order-Master Karal had told Hans to be courteous.
“On orders of Order-Master Karal.” Hans retrieved a scroll-case from his belt and handed it to her. “You are asked to return to the Dreadlands. For your efforts, you are to be awarded a position as Order-Master.”
“No.” Valla said, handing the scroll back. When Hans stood stunned, she threw it at his feet.
As the scroll rolled to his feet, Hans found his voice again. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I’m not going back to the Dreadlands so I can be chained up as the Order’s trophy champion.”
“But it’s a great honour! Master Karal nominated you himself and all the other Masters agreed!” Hans said, hurriedly picking up the case.
Valla strode up and pushed Hans a step back, a single finger on his chest. “I’m a daemon hunter, Hans. I hunt. I don’t sit in a fortress waiting for the daemons to come to me.”
Hans’ face reddened and he pushed back, shaking the scroll-case in her face. “You know the Order-Masters don’t mean it like that! Besides, you have experience far beyond anyone else. You’re the legendary Nephalem now, slayer of Diablo himself! You can’t just abandon your responsibility.”
“That’s exactly why I’m not going back! I’m far more needed out there fighting the daemons than sitting in some dusty keep. You can go back to the Masters and tell them I’ll stay on my own path.” Valla said and walked past Hans out into the open air.
“I should apologise on the Nephalem’s behalf. She is not normally this unhelpful.” Tyrael said after Valla had slammed the inn-door shut behind her.
“Then you know a different Valla than I do.” Hans said and holstered the scroll-case with a sigh. “She’s always been stubborn and headstrong. She almost stormed back into the Dreadlands when they handed her her training crossbow.”
“What will you do now, if you cannot fulfil the order of your Masters?” Tyrael said.
Hans pulled his hood down to reveal a bald head covered with yet more scars than his face. “I’ll have to stay a few days, prepare myself for the journey back. Khanduras might be safer after Valla’s efforts but I fear the Dreadlands will always be perilous. It will be a blow for the future students in the order, but if Valla wants to be obstinate on her own, there is little we can do to change her mind.”
Tyrael looked past the man at the closed door. “I will convince her. It is as you said, she cannot evade her responsibilities forever.”
The archangel found the Nephalem alone on the hill where they had spread Leah’s ashes the day before. She was sitting with her back against the solitary tree, looking up into the skies above Tristram.
“You should treat your friends more kindly. You never know when they might vanish suddenly from your life.” Tyrael said as he approached the hillock.
“That is a low blow, Tyrael.” Valla replied.
Tyrael strode up to stand beside her but did not sit down. “Nevertheless, young Hans had a point. Your experience would be a valuable thing to pass on to future hunters like yourself.”
“If I kill enough daemons, there won’t need to be more hunters.” Valla said.
“Valla, you cannot kill every single daemon to appear on Sanctuary.”
“Watch me.” Valla said, standing up. Her voice had an edge that Tyrael did not wish to hear from anyone.
“Valla, that would be impossible even for the armies of the High Heavens.” Tyrael said.
“You know what was also impossible for the High Heavens? Defeating Diablo and Malthael.” Valla said with venom in her tone.
Tyrael did not reply. She had a point, but her tone still angered the Archangel.
“The order will do fine without my tutelage.” Valla said quietly. The anger that Tyrael had sensed was fading, and he could see her fists balled up so tightly that her knuckles were pale. Discipline and Rage. The two sides to a daemon hunter. He thought to himself.
“What would Leah do?” Tyrael said softly, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“I really would wish you wouldn’t bring her up every time, Tyrael.” Valla said, but she visibly relaxed, her hands loosening.
“She would see the wisdom in the Masters’ request and follow young Hans back to the Order.”
Tyrael closed his mouth again and looked surprised at Valla.
“That’s what you were going to say, right? You’d be right too.” Valla said.
“Well I am the Aspect of Wisdom.” Tyrael said after a pause.
Valla chuckled. “You’re rather cheeky for an Archangel, you know that?”
“I am unfamiliar with this term ‘cheeky’, but I will take it as a compliment.” Tyrael responded.
Valla just laughed.
“Hans?” Valla said as the two of them returned to the common room of the Slaughtered Calf.
The messenger looked up from his meal with a questioning glare. “Some barb you forgot to tell me to tell the Masters?”
“Yes, quite so.” Valla said and sat down in front of him. “I’m coming with you back to the Dreadlands. We leave immediately.”
Hans almost choked on his mouthful of food. “Wh-what? Where did this come from?”
“Don’t worry about it. I just need to talk to Bron, then we’re leaving. Get ready.”
Valla left him to it and turned around to find that Tyrael had already brought the innkeeper-turned-mayor to her.
“Eh, your friend said you wanted to speak to me, Valla?”
“Yes.” Valla said and fished a heavy pouch from her belt. “Take this and listen to me.”
The mayor nodded slowly and opened the pouch, his eyes bulging from their sockets at the contents. The pouch was bulging with gold coins and precious gems.
“There’s more. All I ask is that you use that money to rebuild the Calf.” Valla said.
“Re-rebuild it?” Bron said. “But it’s not damaged.”
“Rebuild it under a different name and make it bigger. Make it a place where travellers and wandering scholars are always welcome.”
“A different name?” Bron said. He was clearly trying to keep up with the situation and not quite managing.
“Leah’s Rest.” Valla said.