[Story] One More Chance VI

The satyrs of Felwood might not be as dangerous as the demons of Draenor, but they were suitable practice. No doubt the old Vindicator would be pleased when she returned with her prize, a satchel full of bindings taken from the demons’ wrists. She had learned earlier in her training not to take them for granted; though they retained a vaguely humanoid appearance, they were as cunning and fierce as any other demon. Vassanta had heard stories that they were once night elves, twisted by corruption — as the man’ari had once been draenei. That would explain their speed and their ability to blend almost seamlessly into the tainted woods. Wiping her blade clean, she glanced down at the one at her hooves. Yes, she thought she could see the resemblance there; the high noble cheekbones and the long ears, the shaggy beard that grew along the lines of his cheek. What was she doing? This was no time to be daydreaming, she reminded herself, crouching down behind a twisted gnarl of roots.

A trio of the demons was approaching, she could see the long fingers tipped with vicious claws flexing as they glanced around the clearing. She was no tracker; she’d given her presence away long ago, and the cries of their dying brethren had drawn these three out to investigate. Vassanta tightened her grip on her sword’s hilt, the other reaching for her mace. She preferred to fight with matching blades, but without the official backing of the Sha’tar, she used whatever she could get her hands on. She was confident that she could handle the three of them, but there was no telling how many more might be lurking in the shadows.

She’d have to act quickly before she was spotted. She burst from cover, rushing toward them with a harrowing cry — enough to startle them and buy her a few precious moments’ advantage. She made quick work of the smallest one, her blade dancing through its hardened hide as it screamed in agony. The tallest had stepped back, its claws drawing through the air as it began to incant a spell, the shadow gathering about its hands. It would have to wait for now, as the third demon slashed at her with a jagged blade. She caught and parried it with her own, leaving an opening for her mace to find its mark. Vassanta heard the sizzle of felfire around her, trying in vain to dodge the searing rain brought down by the tall satyr’s spell. A few scorched across her armor, but it would take more than a few burns to dissuade her, and as the second satyr fell, she whirled to face the caster. Its comrades slain, the demon seemed to hesitate, searching for an escape, but Vassanta’s fury had risen and she slashed repeatedly at the unfortunate satyr.

She growled, prodding the bodies with a hoof for any valuables before she took the bindings from each wrist in turn. More would be along soon, but she felt restless and impatient. These were no challenge for her, she felt ready for the real thing. She had to hope the demons’ bindings would be proof enough for the Vindicator.

Vassanta moved to her resting place behind the twisted tree, pulling a bandage out of her pack and wrapping a cut on her forearm. She stared dumbly at the few bruised petals that fell out, and it took her a moment to remember how they had got into her pack. The flowers. She hadn’t known what to do with them, so she had carefully tucked them into her pack, they’d largely survived the trip home but they had shed a few petals along the way.

They looked sad, lying there on the festering ground, and she picked them up into her palm. She didn’t know what she was doing. Certainly one or both of them was going to get hurt. She liked the elf well enough, but that wasn’t all there was to it, was there? He’d spoken of his forest and his father, of the family he wished to someday have, all with a wistfulness that made Vassanta feel a bit jealous. She had none of that, nor would she ever. Her place was to fight, and die, if need be. A soldier of the Sha’tar had little use for daydreams.

Malcos should understand, she thought. He’d mentioned that he had fought in a great war, but seemed reluctant to talk about it. She wanted to hear everything, the strategies and the enemies he’d faced, but he changed the subject every time. And what did he want from her? It couldn’t be the future he dreamed of, surely he knew it wouldn’t be possible. Was she simply a way to pass the time? She would find that acceptable, she’d certainly done the same many times in the past, so why did the idea unsettle her now? You get what you give, after all, Vassanta sighed, tucking the ruined petals carefully into a pocket of her pack.

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[Story] One More Chance V

She found him near the bonfires, his great arms folded across his chest as he watched the revelers. He had different armor from when she had seen him last; the silvery-white metal gleamed brightly in the light. Now he truly looked like a Vindicator, and her courage wavered.

“Ah, hello Vassanta,” he said jovially, beckoning her over. “Are you enjoying the festival?”

She forced a smile. “I am,” she answered, turning to watch a young human man as he unsteadily tossed the lit torches. Judging by the intensity with which he practiced, Vassanta was certain that he would master them soon. She took a wavering breath and went on. “There was something I wanted to speak to you about,” she said, avoiding his curious gaze.

He nodded solemnly, his expression impassive. She could not tell whether he was angry or disappointed or something else; his features betrayed nothing. “Very well,” Kestaan said after a pause. “We will speak in private.”

Perhaps he did suspect, Vassanta thought. She was grateful for his suggestion to go elsewhere to talk, but she felt like a prisoner going to her execution as she followed him through the winding streets.

“It’s all right to go to the festival, isn’t it?” Vassanta couldn’t help asking it, his silence was slowly un-nerving her.

The elder male tipped his head curiously, though he kept walking. “I should say so. It tests skill, it provides a distraction from the worries that plague this land… why do you ask?”

Vassanta frowned. “My sister said it was immoral. All of the dancing and drinking and naked flame spirits,” she explained hurriedly, feeling a little foolish. If the Vindicator said it was all right, why should Vajarra have a problem with it?

He took a moment to answer. “While I do not approve of drinking, I am curious as to how they managed to find those braziers.”

Her heart sank again. “So it is immoral?”

“The dancing flame illusion? To a degree. But I would think of it… as a relic of our past. Not exactly a morally righteous one, but a relic, regardless.” They had stopped at a small house along the canal, and the Vindicator gestured to the door.

Vassanta blinked at it. She didn’t think that he lived here in the city, but perhaps he did. She didn’t question him though, stepping up onto the wooden porch and pushing the door open.

He settled into the small wooden chair across from her. “Now, what is troubling you?”

There was no sense in hiding it or lying now. He would find out sooner or later, and the worry weighed on her more heavily each day. She wanted to be rid of it, whatever the outcome might be. “I… I made a mistake,” Vassanta stammered, feeling her ears darken with embarassment.

Kestaan’s expression did not change. But not did he speak, and Vassanta felt she had to fill the silence that hung in the air.

“I met someone in the tavern and I brought him back to the inn,” she murmured, her gaze dropping as she felt the weight of his gaze upon her. “I know it was a mistake, I want to make up for it–”

The elder draenei held up a hand, and she stopped abruptly, blinking at him. “I can guess the nature of this “mistake”,” he said firmly. “There is no need to elaborate. Though we strive for the Light, not a one of us is perfect.” Vassanta lifted her gaze hopefully. “Still, you must make amends for your transgression,” he continued, stroking his tendrils, his brow furrowed in thought. “A pilgrimage, perhaps.”

Vassanta looked at him dumbly. “A pilgrimage? To where?”

“That is between you and the naaru, my dear,” Kestaan said, a faint smile crossing his features. “But you must ensure that it does not happen again. You must remember your task, and not give in to his advances… or your urges.”

She nodded obediently. “Anything,” she said quietly, yet a question nagged at her. She could scarcely believe her good fortune that he had not dismissed her outright, he hadn’t scolded her or condemned her as she surely felt that she deserved. She should have just nodded and went on her way, but she had to know.

Perhaps he saw the uncertainty on her face, for he went on. “Should you share feelings for him, of course, I would not restrict you from an honest relationship. Love is a beacon of hope in our troubled times. But you must not allow it to interfere with your duties.”

Vassanta flushed darkly. “No — I mean, he’s just a friend,”

The Vindicator chuckled, shaking his head. She was struck by how like her father he looked in that moment, and a clench of longing seized her heart. She wanted to run to him, for him to hold her in his arms and tell her everything would be fine. But he wasn’t her father, and she was uncertain how he’d react. Instead she rose somewhat stiffly and saluted the Vindicator.

“Thanks for not giving up on me,” she said, bowing to him quickly before she hurried out into the street. She felt relieved, but no less confused for their talk. Did she have feelings for the elf? She was far too wary to fall for any of his smooth talk and yet… he had treated her like a lady, not the soldier that she was. He’d insisted on buying her an expensive dress from that woman at the festival, in spite of her protests. And he’d said she looked beautiful.

She shook her head, frowning. It was a bad idea all around. She would be going to Draenor soon, and chances were good that she might not return. She couldn’t let herself get distracted by something so trivial, not when her dream was so close. She’d just have to tell him that she wasn’t interested. Next time, she vowed.

[Story] One More Chance IV

Vajarra looked startled to see her there, with good reason. The last time Vassanta had stepped into the temple on Aldor rise, their parents had still been alive.

Her sister wore the intricately embroidered blue and purple robes common to all of the attendants in the temple. They were a symbol of her status, and another reminder of Vassanta’s failure. Vajarra stood on the tips of her hooves to hurriedly replace a book on the shelf, then spun to face Vassanta.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded, hardly above a whisper. Her eyes roamed the chamber anxiously, coming to rest on Vassanta again.

She couldn’t prevent a smirk from crossing her lips. “Gee, thanks for the welcome, sister,” Vassanta said, hooking her thumbs in her belt. She hoped her sister wouldn’t notice that she felt as out of place as she looked. After a pause, she went on. “I’m here to apologize, okay?”

Vajarra’s brows drew together as she frowned. “Apologize? To me? I am used to your ways by now, Vassanta. It isn’t me you should apologize to.”

It shouldn’t have hurt her, but it did. Vassanta was trying to make amends, to apologize and be a good person, and her sister was just throwing it back at her. “Yes, to you,” she sighed, sitting down wearily on one of the stone benches. “You were right.” The words made her wince to say aloud.

Vajarra had turned her back to her, running a hand along the spines of the books on the shelf. Vassanta wasn’t certain, but she thought she might be crying.

“I’m sorry I screwed up again, that elf thought–” Vassanta halted, shaking her head. “I’ll talk to him, all right? I’ll tell him I made a promise, whatever you want.”

Vajarra looked back at her, the coolly glowing eyes holding nothing but disappointment. “How many times have you promised, Vass?” Her voice was soft and sad.

Vassanta gripped the hilts of her swords, trying to steady herself. Her sister was so infuriating! It was easy for her to be smug and self-righteous, things were always easy for her. Vassanta was the troublemaker, the bad one, the screw-up. For years she had strained wildly against the suggestion that she should just shape up and act more like Vajarra, but wasn’t that what she was trying to do now?

Though she’d said nothing, it was as if Vajarra could read her thoughts. “You’re the only one who can make that choice,” she said, her voice still low and even. “I want to see you happy too. If you are happy now, then there is no reason for you to change.”

She wasn’t, and Vajarra knew that. Vassanta dropped her head down, holding it in her hands. “What am I supposed to do?” she pleaded.

Vassanta was surprised to feel her sister’s hand on her shoulder. They didn’t touch often, not anymore. “Trust in them,” Vajarra answered, gesturing toward the terrace far below, where the naaru shimmered, their colors gradually changing. “Trust in your heart. I know it’s still in there somewhere.”

She went back into a little room in the temple, beyond a gauzy blue curtain. Vassanta watched after her a moment, but did not follow. The temple wasn’t her place, it still felt as if she was a visitor in someone else’s home. She waited there a long while, as the sky deepened to orange, then burned brightly red and finally cooled to purple.

Her heart, too, felt cold and dark. She cared about her sister, in her own way, and she had certainly cared about their parents. But beyond that, she kept her heart safe and locked away, armored as well as the rest of her. The heart knew nothing of warfare and battle, of blood and rage and fury. It was soft and weak and let people hurt you. How was it supposed to help with this?

Maybe the Vindicator would understand.

[Story] The Flame

[[ A Horde story? Crazy talk. “Soranasha” was Sorelle Nash in life, so that is the name she goes by here. ]]

The flames were nice. They had always been her favorite. The arcane held immense power, and frost was undoubtedly useful, but in Sorelle’s mind there was nothing so compelling as the flickering dance of fire.

She crouched in the ruined courtyard, her skinny legs crossed beneath her dress as she sat atop a moss-covered pillar. How clever it was, she marveled, that they had an entire holiday devoted to the flames! They’d never had such a thing in Dalaran, at least that she could remember. Admittedly, she could not remember very much of those days, beyond the veil of the years and the fog of death.

The bonfire was heaped in the center of the ruined courtyard, a cheerful tent erected nearby. All manner of people had crowded around to admire it. The crowd held its breath as one as an orc, wearing a flamboyant tabard, dipped a lit torch into his mouth. They gasped and clapped enthusiastically as he drew it out again, the flame extinguished. A pair of elves twined sinuously around the ribbon pole, weaving around and through one another with an easy grace. Sorelle smiled inwardly, for she was incapable of doing so any longer. Even Nokjub seemed enthralled, perched saucily on her knee as he stared wide-eyed into the flames.

She wanted to get closer. Brushing the imp away, she stood and brushed the moss and leaves from her gown. There were so many people, but the flames were so pretty. Swallowing her fear, she stepped closer into the crowd. She extended a trembling hand toward it, when a voice made her gasp and draw back.

“You wish to honor the flame?” He was talking to her. Sorelle drew back guiltily, unsure what to say. Was she not supposed to touch it? The man’s eyes glimmered deep within his skull, in what must be amusement. He wore the same tabard that the fire-eater had. “Here you are, dear,” he said, pressing something into her palm.

Sorelle looked down to see two sticks of bark in her bony hand. She looked back at the man, uncomprehending.

“Incense,” he explained, gesturing to the bonfire beyond. “Throw it onto the flame.” His lips pulled back into a macabre grin.

She felt that everyone was looking at her. Awkwardly, she leaned forward and tossed the incense atop the pyre. They alit instantly, a bright flare of color and the bark’s sweet aroma lingered above the scent of the burning wood. Sorelle looked back to the man uncertainly, but he seemed pleased. So did the flames.

There were more flames, she was told, burning all through the lands. She wanted to see them too. They would be pleased if she visited, if she brought them an offering. It was too far to walk, she would have to ride. She disliked riding, in her life she had sat upon a horse perhaps twice. For a magi there were few occasions to do so. But she was not a magi anymore, not exactly. The summoners had taught her how to call a steed forth from the Nether, should she need one. Reluctantly, she brought the beast forth, the flames scorching the ground where it appeared. Flame wreathed its hooves and smoke poured from its nostrils with each breath. She did not like it very much, and she suspected the feeling was mutual. But the demon was bound to her will, and obediently broke into a gallop as she touched her heels to its smoke-colored sides.

Sorelle clung to the demon’s mane as they covered the ground swiftly, the cold air rushing past reminded her suddenly of the crypt. Far in the distance, she could see the smoke rising from another of the fires. She pulled the felsteed’s head around, steering it toward the fork in the road. It balked, snorting its protest. Sorelle sighed in frustration, kicking its sides to encourage it to move. She lifted her head, peering up the road. She could see nothing there.

“Stupid thing,” she muttered, reaching down to adjust the reins, maybe it was uncomfortable. Then she saw it, materializing through the heavy fog. A massive white cat loped toward them on the road, and though she could not clearly see its rider, she knew well enough that it was an elf. “GO!” she shouted to the felsteed, kicking it again with all of her strength. “Go go go!” Its ears twitched, and finally the demon sprang into motion, veering left away from the road into the muddy grass. She didn’t care, let it get dirty, let her get dirty. Sorelle’s heart was pounding; maybe it hadn’t seen them? But how could it not? A flaming demon horse was not exactly easy to miss.

They had galloped into a tunnel, the felsteed’s hoofbeats echoing loudly on the hard stone floor. Maybe they had escaped, she was afraid to turn and look back, maybe —

Something crashed into her from behind, sending her flying from the felsteed’s back. The demon, in self-preservation, never paused in its flight, continuing up the tunnel at a full gallop. Sorelle did not even have time to cry out, the elf was upon her before she could think to even do so, his sword slicing the air as he swung at her. Oh flames, please help me! She scrambled up onto her feet, shaking violently. She wasn’t sure if she could even remember the words for the spell. Sorelle channeled her fear into her fingers, sending him running away; it was enough time for her to call Kal’gore to her side. Though he was large and frightening-looking, she had never had reason to doubt his loyalty, and he appeared nearly instantly, as if he sensed her danger.

The blue demon rushed toward the elf, who had shaken off his fear and now ran toward her again. It bought Sorelle enough time to cast another spell, wreathing the furious elf in flame, another slowly corrupting his soul. If only she had time…

He seemed not to notice the demon at all, though Kal’gore’s claws clutched at him. The elf’s fury was reserved for her alone, and Sorelle was certain that she would die — again. Once more she begged the flame to help her, unleashing it onto her attacker. He cried out, crumpling onto the tunnel’s stone floor, the sword clattering noisily as he fell.

Sorelle felt sick. She didn’t want to look at the body, still flickering with flames. She scrambled to her feet, the fear still choking her throat as she started to run up the tunnel. The felsteed would not have gone far, probably waiting for her in the next valley. Kal’gore paused a moment before he glided silently after her, his claws still clutching at the air.

Now she owed the flames more than honor, she owed them a debt, and she meant to repay it.

[Story] Moonlight

Ornasse couldn’t understand how it had happened.

Thus far, the most apt analogy he had come up with was the time he had been tasked with delivering a tranquilizing poison into a Devilsaur’s bloodstream. One moment, prowling through the deep, dark jungle; the next he was facing an enormous angry mouth filled with teeth like swords. The subsequent rush of danger, and the dizzying thrill of fleeing for his life was something like what he was now feeling. Almost, but not quite.

He was not even sure when it had happened. Ornasse had been spending another miserable evening walled inside the human city, trying in vain to keep its residents from befouling the moonwell in the park district. He was seeking a comrade of his, a fellow druid by the name of Varul. He’d recently ventured into the Dream — and returned in one piece — so Ornasse was eager to speak with him. An endless stream of whores, fools and drunkards wandered up to the moonwell’s stone sides, and Ornasse repelled them each in turn. Sometimes he made the effort to explain its importance, but most times he did not. It wouldn’t matter. They would return in a few hours, or the next day. Sighing, he had channeled a purifying spell through his fingers, alighting the water’s surface with shimmering light. It was cleansed, to a degree, at least until the next person came along.

The next person who came along was not a human, however. Feeling eyes upon him, Ornasse had turned to see a kal’dorei woman leaning against the wall. She was a fighter of some sort, dressed in well-kept but worn leathers, a long dagger at each hip. And she was beautiful. No, more than beautiful; her pale skin and long silver-white hair made her look as if she was made of moonlight itself.

Ornasse said something stupid. She was a little offended, perhaps, but she didn’t stab him, or leave. He said something else stupid, but this time she smiled — a sly, knowing half-smile. That could very well have been the moment, Ornasse realized now. He wanted to get away from the city and the crowds, to talk to her more. Maybe she’d even smile at him again. He was surprised when she accepted.

They went to the forest in Terokkar, not far from the busy Draenei city. It was the closest thing to home that he had found on that strange world, and it made him feel at home in spite of the unusual creatures who dwelled there. Perhaps they were beginning to accept each other.

Her name was Naeva, and they had spoken for hours underneath the strange alien sky. She’d been a warden in the barrows in Ashenvale, and she too was distressed at the way their traditions seemed to be slipping away. Ornasse didn’t remember all of the things they talked about, still trying to understand why she’d agreed to come at all. Surely she had a husband, or at the very least a suitor. But she’d kept looking at him, a long white brow arched in amusement or perhaps appraisal. Finally he’d just asked outright, and no, she didn’t have anyone. Yes, she’d consider it.

She’d agreed to meet him again, when her duties allowed for it. Ornasse suspected that might be a polite refusal, but much to his surprise she’d come a few nights later to the Moonglade. She’d stirred the instincts that had lain dormant for these past few centuries, the urge to protect something other than the boundless wilds. To be frank, there was a more basic instinct awoken as well, and it took more care than usual to keep it in check. He also felt the meager call of hope, something he’d left behind long ago, hope that he might find the quiet family life that had eluded him. When he was younger, he had not given it much thought, but in his twilight he now realized that he did not have a great deal of time left. If, that is, she even felt the same way.

Zharya had not. He’d met the wild huntress on one of his early visits to the city, and she had been insistent in her attentions. Ornasse had turned her down repeatedly, but eventually her persistence — and a great deal of Darkmoon ale — wore his defenses down. Once she had him though, she had lost interest. It was painful and embarassing to admit, but it seemed he had only been another quarry to her. Looking back, it was easy to see now, but Ornasse had been caught up in the moment, in the hope that she might be the key to the life he had missed out on. He’d asked her to stay with him, and she had declined — quite firmly. She’d returned to the wilds, leaving him stung and wounded.

Probably it was naive, but Ornasse believed that this was different. He could not believe that it was only chance that had brought their paths together, and he would do anything within his power to ensure that they did not part again. He’d journeyed to the distant Exodar, riding the ship across the foggy sea to the little island. There he had visited the master jeweler, for he’d heard that their skill far exceeded any he might find even in Ironforge. The jeweler was intrigued with the stone he had brought, and eager to fulfill his request. When Ornasse made the return trip across the sea, he brought back with him a small crystal box in which laid the necklace — and all of his hopes.

[Story] One More Chance III

Vassanta stared glumly down at the book open before her. She found reading tedious enough in Draenei, trying to make sense of the strange Common words tripped her up all the more. It wasn’t that the book was boring, really, it was an account of the Burning Legion’s coming to Azeroth and its engineering of the Scourge. Though the descriptions were stiff and matter-of-fact, it was easy enough to imagine what the demons had looked like as they burned the land. She knew well enough what that looked like. It wasn’t even the dull throbbing in the back of her skull; she’d had a fair amount to drink last night and it was catching up to her. But that was nothing unusual, by her own standards last night had been pretty light.

No, her distraction was caused by something so foreign that it took her some time to put a name to what she was feeling: guilt.

She’d simply been strolling along, not causing anyone trouble, and happened across an elf who was very obviously lost. It had been alarmingly easy to lure him to the tavern and subsequently to the inn. She’d thought he might prove to be at least a small challenge, but it was like rolling a game of dice against a child. He could have resisted, she reasoned, flipping to the next page in the book. He could have got up at any time, just walked out. Why then did she feel as if she’d done something wrong?

The library, cool and dark beneath the Cathedral, was empty at this early hour. The Vindicator had brought her here last week, and pointed her to the tall stack of books. He’d picked them out so that she could learn about the Legion, to better understand the enemy that she’d soon face. He’d told her of the invasion, about how they sought to ruin Azeroth as they had ruined Draenor. She had been so inspired, so dedicated to being a good student then, only a few short days ago. Here in the library, surrounded by the silent stacks of books, she felt that way again.

Maybe she ought to tell him about it. She didn’t think that he would scold her for it, the way Vajarra would. He’d be disappointed though, surely. He might even refuse to teach her anymore. She frowned, glancing down at the book. A woodcut illustration stretched across both pages; a monstrous demon with four legs and a great tail leading an assault on a human city. No, she could not endanger Draenor. She’d simply pretend that last night never happened, and no one would ever be the wiser. After all… it’s not like she would ever see that elf again.

[Story] Deep Into That Darkness Peering

The raven towered above him, its enormous inky shape blotting out the sun. He imagined if only he held very still, the beast would not see him, but the beady eyes glittered with malice as it stared down. Its hooked beak parted, and even far below, Ornasse could see blood that dripped from its edges in unnerving detail. Foolish druid, it screamed, and a cloud of crows burst from cover — from within its feathers or the trees he could not say. Their wings filled his consciousness, flapping and screeching as they swirled around him, pecking and clawing. I will destroy you… and then I will destroy your precious Dream. He could feel the crows tearing at him, ripping tufts of hair and clothing. He felt himself being scattered, the wind gusting up and carrying the bits of him away and where he once stood, there was nothing. Nothing, but he could see Naeva far below, crouched at the edge of the clearing, the tears staining her white face.

He awoke, trembling. The nightmare had plagued him periodically, but now it had changed — evolved. Naeva was still beside him, and still slept peacefully, her breath rising and falling like the swells of the ocean. Was it possible that the creature — he was hesitant to call it a god — could know? Or were the caverns of his own mind revealing their darkest fears?

The nightmare had come for the first time not long after he’d entered the barrow in Moonglade. Somehow, the plants and beasts that had been twisted by the corruption in the tainted Dream were materializing within the cavern. The Wardens fought day and night to hold them back, but their numbers seemed limitless. One of them, what had once been a raven, screamed its dire warning to him. That was when they had begun.

Few in the Cenarion Circle knew anything of this raven, but he persisted, for his own peace of mind as much as his duty to the Dream. He was led to a young druid in the forests of remote Draenor, who insisted there was some connection to the strange and hostile bird-men. It seemed that once they had revered the spirit as a god, and he now had retreated to the Emerald Dream, where he knew very few could tread.

Ornasse reached for his pack, taking out a small bundle wrapped carefully in cloth. Within the bundle was a stone, affixed to a simple leather lace. It did not look like much, but the stone swirled with energy, glowing brightly in the pale morning light. The druid at the outpost in the marsh had aided him with its creation, binding the three bird spirits within the stone. Bait, Ornasse thought ruefully, but he had to hope that they would forgive him this indignity.

He had not told Naeva of the nightmares. Nor, this foggy morning, did he tell her where he planned to go. Part of him knew that he should, that it would be better if he did not conceal it from her; but neither did he wish for her to worry. He also suspected that she would insist on coming with him, and it was far too dangerous. If he failed in this task, she would believe that he simply had moved on, disappeared. She would find another, and simply forget about him. It would be much less painful.

Both of his contacts with the Circle had suggested that he search within the draenei ruins for the raven’s followers; his scouring of their villages had proven fruitless. The labyrinthe ruins seemed an unlikely place to find birds, Ornasse thought, but perhaps that was their reason for hiding there.

The druid disliked the ruins greatly. Even in its prime, the city was composed of narrow, winding passageways, blocked off entirely from the sky. Now in its death, the city’s crumbling walls and whispering ghosts were maddening. He heard the bird-men before he saw them, their harsh cries echoing through the chambers. So they were here, in the depths of the ruins. He hid where he could, not wanting to set off an alarm. The arakkoa’s strident calls would surely bring the rest of the flock to him.

He prowled into a great open chamber, long-abandoned from the looks of the litter strewn over the stone floor. Not surprisingly, old and dusty feathers lay like autumn leaves in great drifts. Looking up, he could see the darting shadows of the small birds that flitted there. A crude altar stood in the room’s center, built of skulls and sticks and feathers, and coated with the wax of melted candles. This was the place, he was certain of it. As if in answer, the moonstone seemed to thrum within his pouch.

Steeling himself, he drew the stone from the bag, and placed it within the twisted claws of the altar. “Come, raven,” Ornasse called to the empty chamber. “Come forth from the Dream and show yourself.”

For a long moment, he thought that nothing would happen. But then the stone rattled violently, clattering against the altar as it shimmered with brilliant blue light. The air above the altar swirled, like a maelstrom in the ocean, its edges tinged with green. Then, the raven materialized, and Ornasse realized with sick dread that it was exactly as it appeared in his nightmares.

Its voice seemed to come directly into his mind, harsh and terrifying. So, little druid. You have come at last. Ornasse was rooted, pinned down by fear, and the raven moved to strike, its deadly beak snapping toward him. Instinct saved him, his body shifting into its nimble nightsaber shape as he leapt away from the raven’s slashing beak. He snarled, his fangs drawn back in a deadly grin as he whirled back on his attacker, striking at the raven’s head with his claws.

But this seemed only to enrage the raven further, spreading its vast black wings like dusk over the room. You cannot hope to defeat me, druid, it screeched, its strident voice slamming into his mind. Accept your fate.

Ornasse roared, rage surging through his veins as he called on the bear spirit. Never, he thought, rushing toward the raven at furious speed. The raven gave a harsh screech of surprise, rearing back to slash at him with its claws. But the bear’s rage was upon him, and Ornasse did not flinch, even as the claws raked repeatedly across his fur. The raven staggered backward, its form shimmering and becoming transparent as it began to retreat to the safety of the Dream. It beat its wings vigorously, and raised its beak toward the sky to utter a chilling cry that reverberated throughout the chamber.

He snorted in fury, his paws swiping the nothingness where the raven once stood, when he twitched his ears suddenly. That sound… he had heard it in his nightmare. From the ceiling, the corners, the hallways, a seething flock of birds rushed toward him, heeding the raven’s command. As in the nightmare, they crowded around him, buffeting him with their wings and pecking with their hundreds of beaks. He struck out at them blindly, his broad paws cutting a swath through their numbers only to be replaced the next second. They fell at his feet, their tiny bodies crushed and twitching, and unlike the nightmare, their numbers dwindled as he struck them down. The few who remained broke free of the raven’s hold, fluttering away back into the dark corners of the ruins.

Is that all you have, raven? Ornasse was not sure if the raven could hear his own thoughts. He stood, panting with exertion, and the raven stepped forth again. Its eyes still held that cold reptilian malice, but Ornasse also believed that he saw fear for the first time.

This time, the raven charged first, crossing the distance between them in two nimble strides. Ornasse was ready for him, his strong jaws bared wide as he leapt for the raven’s throat. It realized, a split second too late, what he was doing, and hopped sideways, slashing at him with its talons. But Ornasse had seized hold of the thick feathers at the beast’s neck, and now chewed his way closer to the vulnerable throat. Screeching in fury, the raven tossed its head, trying in vain to dislodge him. Feeling Ornasse’s teeth upon his skin, the raven screamed, so loudly that the druid was certain his head could not contain it. The massive bird rolled onto its side, slashing at him with its talons even as Ornasse sunk his teeth into the windpipe.

Then, in a moment, the raven was gone. Ornasse’s jaws snapped together with an audible click as they closed on nothing. As the blood-rage faded, he blinked in confusion. Was it dead? The raven had certainly been real, its massive claws had raked several gashes in his pelt, staining the fur with blood. The tip of one claw rested on the cold stone, having broken off during the struggle. Ornasse released the bear spirit, returning to his own body, and sealed the worst of his wounds with a healing spell. He picked up the claw, turning it over in his hand, and frowned back at the place where the raven had been.

He looked up, but the birds held no answers for him.

He would return to the Circle and tell them what he had learned. If not dead, perhaps the raven had retreated where the druids of the Dream might find it. Either way, he thought, tucking the raven’s claw into his pack, the nightmare would be over.