[Story] One More Chance XX

The darkness engulfed him, dragged beneath its depths like the vast cold ocean. Somewhere, far away, he could hear a voice; he could not hear the words so much as feel the echoes of the sound, resonating against his bones. Gradually he became aware of his own body, and with that knowledge came the pain that, oddly, he had not noticed until now. It pressed down on him everywhere, he had the urge to flinch, to try to move away from it, be he could not. It had cornered him, and his limbs did not seem to answer to his will. Yet he could feel the cold earth beneath his fingers, and the warm wetness that confused him for several puzzling moments until he realized that it was blood. His blood, how had it got there? He couldn’t remember, and his head throbbed, feeling his sluggish heartbeat with every pulse.

I’m going to die, Istahn thought, with a curious feeling of detachment.

Shadows moved in his field of vision, and he squinted his eyes tightly closed; they were still there. Beasts perhaps, drawn by the warm coppery tang of his blood. He marveled that he could see the forest in such detail — had that always been the case? He could feel the crushed leaves and pine needles beneath his fingers, see the veins of mineral that ran through the rock beside him. Somewhere above, a strange bird cried in an eerily prescient voice. And yet he felt as if he was not himself, as if this body was something that he was inside, only dimly aware of the pain that clutched it like an animal’s jaws. Istahn supposed that this was shock, but then he wondered if one would be aware of that.

The voices again. He could feel their faint echo in the ground, inside of his skull. His vision blurred, became softer somehow, and he was slipping further. Still, he could not find more than a feeling of disappointment, that he would never see in such unerring clarity again. Did many of his kind die here, on this very ground, defending their city against the onslaught of the Scourge? The thought of it reassured him, that his bones might settle down in the soil and find his kindred there, beneath the quiet forest.

Do you hear me?

He heard the voice that time, and he tried to look and see who had spoken, who was here with him. His failing vision let him see only their shape, silhouetted against the dark sky, wreathed in a corona of moonlight. Had she come for him? Those were horns… weren’t they? A shudder wracked him as the pain coiled around him like a jungle snake, squeezing.

I can end your pain, said the voice, like silk over his mind. Yes, Istahn wanted to answer, but he could not find his voice. A hand was on his forehead, light and soothing. Do you want that? Do you want to live again?

Istahn could feel his body betraying him, its machinery grinding to a gradual stop. Squinting with concentration, he willed his head to move, a nod: Yes, I want to live.

His breath returned, the pain loosening its clutches on his chest, and the coldness of the air burned his lungs.

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[Story] One More Chance XIX

Vajarra knew last night had been a bad idea, especially now, in the bright and embarrassing light of morning. It was some consolation that Malcos was visibly shaken as well, and she couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. He had moved on, had gone on with his life as he’d told her to, and she’d probably set him back. But he’d made the long, cold night pass more easily and she was grateful for the comfort — and grateful that he hadn’t tried anything inappropriate. In fact, he was really a very nice fellow, and she couldn’t understand why Vassanta had treated him that way. He certainly didn’t deserve it, and she knew that he was thinking of her sister, even as he held her. That didn’t bother her; surely he knew that he was a stand-in for Varul as well.

Malcos had left the inn to go, to where she didn’t know. She’d asked what he was doing here last night, but he was vague. Whatever it was, Vajarra was sure that she didn’t need to know about it. The bells on the docks had called nearly everyone to work, and though it was still early, the tavern was nearly empty save for the unsettling-looking bartender. Placing her coins on the counter, Vajarra asked for a mug of moonberry juice and one of the sweet rolls from the kitchen. Though the fire was out, she sat near it, alone at the long table. It was then she noticed the man in the corner, huddled over his mugs. He was a draenei, and a large one, his horns and face marred by more scars than were typical of his age. And he was watching her.

She glanced uncertainly at the bartender, who was leaning against the kegs. If she noticed the strange man, she didn’t appear very concerned. Vajarra hurried to finish her breakfast; if she hadn’t been so ravenously hungry she would have just left it behind. He was still staring, and she could see now that he had been drinking a great deal — he must have had a very early start. It didn’t seem like the lecherous stare of a drunk, though, his heavy brow was furrowed as if he was trying to remember something. Either way, Vajarra wished to leave as soon as possible, and she drained the last of her moonberry juice in a long gulp. She hurried toward the door of the tavern, trying to escape from his curious gaze.

“Your elf’s dead,” the draenei said, as casually as one might mention the weather. Vajarra couldn’t help but halt, turning back to look at him with a brow arched. “I killed him.”

“He’s not dead. I just saw him leave,” Vajarra protested, and he’s not my elf. She felt foolish for even engaging the obviously drunk man in conversation. It was pointless to even argue with him, and she shook her head, starting for the door again. So why could she feel fear sneaking its tendrils around her heart?

The man gave a harsh snort. “Not that one,” he said, fixing his bleary gaze upon her. “In the Ghostlands.”

It took Vajarra a moment to remember where she had heard that name, and when she did, the fear seized her, catching in her throat. “You’re lying.”

“Your sister,” he croaked, scratching at his tendrils. His armor looked as if he’d been traveling through the swamp, his hooves were crusted with dried mud. “She paid me to do it.” She simply stared at him. “If you don’t believe me, ask to see her ring,” he said, making a chopping motion on his wrist with his other hand.

There had to be a mistake, Vajarra assured herself as she ran out onto the stone road, gripping her stone in her trembling hands. She’d find Vassanta and she’d explain everything, it was all a big misunderstanding. She simply couldn’t believe that Istahn was dead, and even more outrageous, that Vassanta had been responsible. The stone glowed with green light, and Vajarra held very still, squinting as the stone’s magic swirled around her, and she found herself in her quarters in the temple. She ran out onto the terrace toward the barracks, hoping that Vassanta hadn’t yet left for the morning.

She hadn’t, in fact when her sister answered the door it was obvious that she’d still been in bed when Vajarra knocked frantically. Her new male was there too, Vajarra could hear him sleepily asking who was there. “I’m kind of busy,” Vassanta said, but her brows drew together in concern when she saw Vajarra’s expression.

Vajarra beckoned her out into the hallway, and Vassanta closed the door behind her. “Well, what’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something.”

She had a fierce and sudden urge to slap her. Had she always been this callous? But Vajarra should at least give her a chance to explain. “Did you kill him?” Vajarra would not normally be so blunt, but she had to know.

Vassanta’s brows went up, and Vajarra’s heart plummeted. She didn’t even have to hear the answer, she knew from the expression of feigned surprise that it was true. “Kill who? I haven’t even left–”

“How could you?” Vajarra shouted, her hands clenching into useless fists. “How could you do that?! He belonged to the Light! He was my FRIEND!” It wasn’t like Vajarra to shout, but she couldn’t help herself, and this time it was she who drew curious looks from the guards.

Vassanta scowled. “You have no idea what he did, Vajarra. And he was using you, he only wanted to get back at me. And you’re too naive to see it.”

She was shaking, sure that her legs would give out beneath her, and she sat down heavily on a bench. “Let me see it,” Vajarra said, staring back at Vassanta. “His ring. I want to see if it’s true.”

Vassanta sighed impatiently. “Just a second.” Vajarra watched as she went back into her quarters, staring blankly at the door. It couldn’t really be true, could it? Maybe it was another elf, there was probably just a mistake. For a time, Vajarra thought that she might not come back at all, but a few moments later she emerged and dropped the ring into her hand.

It was his. She recognized the seal on the signet, a rising sun, its rays radiating out from the center, a sword held aloft vertically in the center. She felt numb, unable to speak or move. She wanted to ask if she could have it, but Vassanta reached out and took it back. “This,” Vassanta said, her hand curling around it protectively. “This means I’m free.”

Vajarra didn’t understand, none of it. Why Vassanta would do such a thing, why she didn’t tell her, why she’d allowed her to become friends with him and why, most of all, had the naaru permitted it. But she could ask none of those things, the words couldn’t find their way to her lips. She simply sat, staring in stunned disbelief, until Vassanta went back inside. She could hear her voice there, distantly, and the male’s voice too. Her life was going on, like usual, while Istahn lay cold and dead somewhere. And she didn’t even care, didn’t feel a stab of guilt at what she had done. How could this person even be her sister?

She stood slowly, her hooves feeling as if they belonged to someone else. From the terrace she could see A’dal’s brilliant rays in the chamber below. Why? she wanted to ask. How could you let this happen? Though she was close to them, she was only a person and she could never hope to understand the naaru’s will, but it was so unfair. Istahn had redeemed himself, had offered himself to them and they allowed this to happen? To be struck down in such a wretched manner? She was surprised and ashamed of the anger she felt toward them. She could only hope that the reason would show itself in time.

[Story] One More Chance XVIII

The night air in Theramore was cold, and carried the moisture of the sea with it. Vajarra drew her cloak more closely around her as she stepped out from the tower onto the stone path. She had asked one of the mages in Stormwind to send her here, the boats were slow and smelly and full of strange people. The night elf was waiting for her, sitting atop his black horse. Vajarra bowed hurriedly, suddenly regretting coming all the way here and bothering him for something so trivial.

“Good evening, priestess,” Malcos said. She thought he sounded a little amused. “I heard word that you wanted to speak with me?”

Vajarra glanced at one of the passing guards, who looked at her curiously in turn. “That’s right,” she nodded. “Do you think we could go somewhere to talk?”

The elf smiled, sliding down from the horse’s saddle and picking up the reins. “I know just the place,” he said, leading the horse across the grounds toward the great stone wall that enclosed the city. Malcos tethered the horse to a fencepost and patted its neck fondly, then he turned to look at Vajarra. “Right there,” he said, gesturing to a wide ramp. Vajarra looked at it skeptically, but it looked safe enough, she supposed. The ramp led up to the tops of the walls, where the guards kept a sleepy watch, their torches bright spots in the darkness. It was really very beautiful, Vajarra had to admit, looking out over the sea and the tangled swamp beyond the city’s walls. If Varul were here, it would almost be romantic, and she felt her heart tighten painfully.

“Is this about that druid?” Malcos spoke up at last, though quietly.

Vajarra blinked, suprised. “Did he talk to you?”

He shook his head. “No, but I guessed… from the last time we spoke.” Vajarra felt her ears warm, was it really so obvious? There was no use in mincing words at this point.

“He doesn’t want to see me anymore,” Vajarra said quietly, surprised that she was able to say the words aloud. They felt as if they belonged to someone else.

She didn’t turn to look at him, but she could imagine Malcos’ expression. “Then he’s a fool.”

Vajarra furrowed her brow. “How can you say that? You don’t even know him.” Why was he attacking Varul? She was the one who had given up, after all. She tried to imagine how she would feel if she were in his place, but she didn’t know. It was hard to be objective right now.

He shook his head, leaning forward against the wall. He still wasn’t looking at her, but somewhere far out in the swamp. “Just from what you’ve told me. It’s clear to me he doesn’t care for you as much as you do for him. Leaving you alone like that without a word, and getting angry when you moved on? But–” he sighed, shaking his head. “I’m the last person you should be asking for advice, priestess.”

“I didn’t know who else to ask,” she said quietly, feeling embarrassed again. “I thought because you’d recently… you know.”

She wished she could see his expression, but it was impossible in the darkness. “You can’t keep dwelling on the past, hoping it’ll change. I know I’ll never have Vass again, so I have to move forward.”

Vajarra furrowed her brow at that. “But I don’t want to move on. I’ll just focus on my studies and maybe he’ll change his mind one day.”

Malcos let out an exasperated sigh. “That’s what I mean, you’re still trying to hold onto the past. It’s just going to hurt you more. I know it seems hard, but you have to forget about him.”

Vajarra stared out at the swamp, its gnarled trees poking out above the fog. She didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but Malcos’ advice was horrible. She wasn’t like Vassanta, who had dozens of men at her beck and call. It wasn’t as if she could just go to the auction house and buy one. And even if she could, she still loved Varul, he was the only one she really wanted. “Could we go inside?” she asked at last. “It’s cold out here.”

He nodded, offering his hand to help her down the ramp. In spite of his somewhat frightening looks, it seemed that he really was a gentleman. Vajarra supposed that’s just not what Vassanta had wanted. The tavern was bright and loud, in spite of the late hour, and Vajarra hesitated. “Is this tavern full of sailors?”

Malcos laughed, and she wasn’t sure if he was laughing at her or not. “No, I brought you to the nice one, priestess. I’ll go check for you though, all right?”

Vajarra waited outside, huddling in her cloak. The city was nice, but it was much more rough than she was used to. After a few moments, Malcos reappeared in the doorway, waving her in. “Come in,” he said, with a grin.

There were some sailors, at least she guessed they were from their clothing, but they sat quietly at one of the back tables. The hearth roared with a huge fire, and Vajarra was glad to sit near its warmth. Malcos brought her a mug, and she began to protest. “Relax, priestess. It’s moonberry juice.”

They sat by the fire, talking until the hour grew late and the flames faded into flickering ashes. “Did you want me to stay here?” Malcos asked, and Vajarra raised her brows in alarm.

“Stay here… with me, you mean?”

He shook his head, flustered, and she saw his ears darken the way Varul’s would when he was embarrassed. “Not like that, I just mean, here in this inn. If you’re worried about staying here.”

“Oh yes, if you don’t mind,” Vajarra said, relieved. The bartender was wearing an eyepatch. And she was a woman. It didn’t look like the sort of place that was safe for a lady to stay alone. “But…”

Malcos blinked, his head cocked curiously. “But?”

“Would you stay near me, though? Not — you know — but just, to have someone there.” She was falling over her words, she didn’t know how to explain what she wanted; just a comforting presence, to have someone there so she wouldn’t feel so desperately alone.

Malcos peered into his own mug of moonberry juice and nodded. “If you’d like.” Vajarra felt her own ears darken, and wished she hadn’t said anything at all, but he continued after a moment. “I know all too well what you’re going through. I’m happy to offer what comfort I can.”

“And you won’t um… try anything, right?” Vajarra eyed him warily.

His eyes went wide in alarm. “No, you have my word that I wouldn’t do such a thing.”

He could have been lying, but Vajarra didn’t think that he was. She nodded, gathering up her things as he requested a room, and followed him up the staircase.

[Story] One More Chance XVII

Vajarra watched the coin as it tumbled into the well’s depths, the light glinting on the silver and disappearing into the dark water. She reached into her pouch for another, but found it empty. That didn’t surprise her, she had been here most of the morning, and whomever dwelled in the bottom of that well was several gold pieces richer by now. She looked back to the bench glumly, not that she really expected him to appear, but hope insisted that she look again. Because he could have changed his mind, couldn’t he? Maybe when he reached the home they used to share, he would be overcome with loneliness and beg her to forgive him.

Vajarra didn’t really believe any of these things would happen, but she permitted her imagination to pursue them. It helped to pass the time and it helped to keep the tears back — most of the time. She settled on the smooth marble bench with a sigh, hooking her tiny hooves under her. It was easy to picture him there, sitting as they had so many times in the past. He would be wearing his leather breeches, and his white linen shirt, and he would have that dirty old hat perched on his head, his long ears pointing out from the holes in the top. She could even see the little leaves and things in his hair, that she had to resist picking out. He wasn’t fussy like she was, he didn’t care if his hair was mussed or there was dirt on his boots.

She could still remember the very first time she saw him. He was sitting at the base of the tree in front of the auction house, nearly obscured by the bushes there. He had been wearing armor that was dyed green, so no one noticed him. Vajarra had though, she had asked him why he was hiding. Even though she got the feeling that he was irritated by her questions, he explained that he was watching over the tree, that he was a druid who guarded the wilds. They never planned it, but they met by the tree again, and he patiently answered all of her questions. She remembered asking him to go to the Darkmoon Faire, how he drank some of the ale and sat close to her, and she wishing that he would kiss her, and feeling surprised by the wish. He didn’t though, he didn’t seem to notice her at all, not in that way. Because she wasn’t an elf, maybe, but it didn’t matter to her.

She remembered the night in the tavern in Shattrath, when she couldn’t bear to keep it a secret any longer, and she kissed his cheek and told him that she wanted to be his. He hadn’t known, he said, and she thought she couldn’t have been much more obvious about it, but was delighted that he felt the same way. They went one evening to Darkshore, and he showed her the forest where he had grown up. She stayed with him, beneath the fragrant boughs of an ancient pine, while the stars winked overhead. In the forest outside of Terrokar, he built a little home for them, born from the willing wood of a living tree.

Her sister didn’t approve. She said that kind of thing was beneath Vajarra. Her uncle Jovaar approved even less, and he said that no good would come of it. She remembered how she’d argued in Varul’s defense, saying that he would never abandon her like that. It made her feel foolish now, to see that her uncle had been right all along. He’d only been trying to protect her, but at the time she’d been infuriated with him. Certainly she couldn’t go to him for advice now, nor to Vassanta, who was too busy with her own latest interest.

It was so unfair! How was she supposed to know that he hadn’t died? He didn’t write to her, or leave a note, or tell anyone where he was going. The days stretched into weeks and then into months, and Vajarra was faced with two harsh truths: either Varul was dead, or he was alive and didn’t want her to know where he was. She couldn’t take care of herself, she needed someone to look after her. Aziron, the stoic warrior, offered — very politely, too — and she had accepted. Aziron treated her well enough, but battle was his only real love, and he was away for days at a time, Vajarra tending the little house in Telaar on her own. She thought of Varul often on those quiet nights, wondering where he was, what had become of him.

So when he had come back, Vajarra was delighted, but he’d changed. He was angry and remote, and he hadn’t seemed to miss her at all. And when she told him the truth, that she had turned to another in his absence, he was furious. It didn’t matter, all of her pleading and apologies could not budge him, and he fled to the woods. It was only last night that she’d seen him again, at last, and she’d gone to him, her heart full of hope. They’d talked here, on the benches in front of the well, and he told her that he didn’t love her any longer. He wasn’t angry, wasn’t vengeful, he didn’t feel anything at all, but that was somehow worse. She wanted to kiss him, to touch him, in hopes that it might make him pause, but she didn’t dare risk him refusing.

The tears came after he had left, unable to keep them back any longer. She didn’t want anyone to see her, but fortunately the courtyard was empty. What was she supposed to do without him? “Find someone else,” was what he had said, and she could hear the bitterness in his voice. The trouble is, there wasn’t anyone like him.

She wished there was someone who understood, who could tell her what to do. Not Vassanta, and certainly not her uncle. She thought of Istahn, and immediately felt ashamed for it. He was her friend, there was no more between them than that, she assured herself. But he would listen, nodding in that patient way of his while he stroked her hand. He’d make her some tea and tell her what to do and everything would be all right. She wished that she hadn’t sent him away, or rather that Vassanta hadn’t forced it to happen. Maybe he would write to her soon, on fancy paper with his neat handwriting and sealed with wax with his signet ring. For now though, the comforting light of the naaru would have to be enough.

[Story] Letters from the Jungle

Dear Grandpa,

I hope this letter finds you well. I know it must be a surprise to hear from me, it has been too long since we have talked. Are you still living in Shattrath? I have gone on what father used to call one of my “adventures”, in the jungle south of the human city. Did you know there is a jungle there? It’s quite big. For the moment I am staying in the human camp but tomorrow morning I will go out into the jungle. I am told there are all sorts of interesting creatures that live there. Doesn’t that sound exciting? I’ll try to bring you something back if I can.

Love, Mia

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Dearest Mia,

A surprise would be an understatement! It is wonderful and a great relief to hear from you, I was worried that you might disappear onto the plains one day. You must tell me more of what you found there! I am indeed still in Shattrath, it has changed very much from what you remember, I am not certain that you would even recognize it now. I never thought we might have such a variety of faces and cultures in one place, I am learning new things every day. The Scryers have set up a library of their vast knowledge of the arcane, and I do so enjoy discussing it with them. I think it amuses them to see me among them. I have a feeling I know the true reason behind your trip, and though I do not condemn it as your parents did, I must plead you to use your greatest caution. The jungle can be a very dangerous place, Mia.

Love,
Grandpa Daaro

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Dear Grandpa,

The jungle is so amazing! Already today I have seen three striped cats, an enormous lizard that walks on two legs, and the most interesting of all, there are people here in the jungle. They have blue skin like us, but they have big soft feet. It looks like they tried to grow hooves but the hoof never got hard. On their face they have tusks like an elekk, and their hair comes in bright colors, like birds. Some of them are angry, but some of them are friendly. Grandpa, they have spirits. I showed them my totems and they understood. I can’t talk to them and they can’t talk to me, but we both know spirits. I think they like me all right, but I’ll be careful. I like this place very much. I’d write more, but the fire is going out.

Love, Mia

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Dearest Mia,

It doesn’t sound as if you are being very careful.

Love,
Grandpa Daaro

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Dear Grandpa,

You worry too much. I am helping the trolls (that’s their name, by the way) and they are showing me spirit things. They know things that I never even dreamed about. There are dark spirits too, and I am being careful about those, I promise. The trolls are having a war with some other trolls. If I kill the other trolls and bring things back, they like me more. We still can’t talk really, but I can tell. I also tried some of their soup. Don’t tell them I said this, but it’s not very good. Tomorrow I am going with some of the good trolls into a big city. Well it used to be a city, but it’s ruined now. By the way, there are a lot of snakes in this jungle.

Love, Mia

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Dearest Mia,

I worry because you are my favorite grand-daughter. I hope the thing that you bring me isn’t a snake.

Love,
Grandpa Daaro

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Dear Grandpa,

I’m your only grand-daughter. I found lots of snakes but the thing I found today was interesting. It’s a book, and the troll who’s the boss (I think they call it a chief) gave it to me. I can’t read it but maybe you can figure it out. There’s drawings inside but mostly weird symbols and things. The cover is made out of leather I think. I’m mailing it along with this letter, I was going to wait until I returned but I think the trolls don’t like having it here.

Love, Mia

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Dearest Mia,

The book you have sent me is incredible, it’s like nothing I have seen before. I have showed it to my friends, the Scryers, and they are going to help me decipher it. They are baffled too, but I am certain that between all of us, we can find out what is hidden inside. Oh, I forgot to mention in my last letter, beware of murlocs. I have been told that they often frequent that jungle.

Love,
Grandpa Daaro

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Dear Grandpa,

You mean those fish-people? I already found out about those. I’m thinking about painting my face, what do you think?

Love, Mia

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Dearest Mia,

I think that your mother would have a fit, but she isn’t here so I suppose that you can do it if you like. Please do not come home with a troll husband, though.

The arcanists and I have made some progress on the book that you sent me. It is a spell of some sort, we have determined that much. Most likely a polymorph. However the results have been “mixed”, to say the least. It will require a bit more experimenting.

Love,
Grandpa Daaro

[Story] One More Chance XVI

It shouldn’t have been so easy. This blood elf was wily, far moreso than his usual prey. So Kedaar could not believe that he’d walk so willingly to his doom, to leave the sanctuary walls. It made him wary, and from what the warrior girl had told him of his quarry, he had reason to be so. He didn’t know what the priestess had told him, whether the elf knew that he was being hunted, but now Kedaar had to assume that the element of surprise — the most important advantage he had — was now gone.

The terrain was not in his favor, either. He’d rarely had the chance to hunt the blood elves in their homeland, and the dark, plagued woods were unfamiliar to him. Fortunately, he had encountered nothing especially unusual, some red-pelted cats and some very large spiders, and a great number of undead. But he didn’t know the land very well, the hidden caverns and vantage points, though he’d tried in few hours he had been here to get a general idea. Kedaar made camp atop one of these ridges, overlooking a broad, dark scar that sectioned the forest into halves. The main road crossed it here, though Kedaar only kept a half-hearted watch. He didn’t think the elf would be so foolish as to travel out in the open. In fact, he didn’t know if the elf would take the road at all; he might have used the strange device to teleport into the safety of the city. But Kedaar wasn’t worried about that. He had all the time in the world, and sooner or later, some sign of the elf would appear.

The haunted woods were beautiful in their own way, and Bloodthorn found the creatures there to be easy hunting — none of them had seen a creature like him before, and were unprepared for his ferocity. On the second day, Kedaar came across a camp of night elf Sentinels, and he stayed with them for a time, listening as they told him of these woods and of the regular attacks by the blood elves. From the sound of it, the open woods were dangerous enough that any traveler would be forced to stay along the roads, and would likely avoid the scar as much as possible. Kedaar moved along the edges of the road, just in the cover of the trees, where he guessed the elf would have passed. He searched for any track, any sign of disturbance of the plants, anything that might give a hint to his quarry’s whereabouts.

As it turned out, he only had to wait for the third day. Kedaar was far to the south, where the entrance of the forest was guarded by the ruins of a gatehouse. He had been tracking back, about to work his way up the other side of the road, when they passed. Bloodthorn hissed, raising his claws eagerly, but Kedaar set a hand on the creature’s cool shell, silently willing him to wait. He was stunned to see that not only was the elf traveling on the road, he was alone. The elf wore light leather armor and carried two short blades. Was he trying to get himself killed?

Again it seemed too simple, a trap to lower his guard and goad him into a foolish mistake. Kedaar held back, wary. The first shot was the most important, its timing crucial. This stretch of the road was ideal; it was less traveled, no outposts or buildings nearby, and plenty of cover. He could feel Bloodthorn’s restless energy beside him, eager for the kill. That was all the reassurance he needed. He drew a bolt from his quiver, laying it into the notch. The elf paused, and Kedaar could see the tips of his ears flick. Had he heard? It was too late to reconsider, his finger had already squeezed the trigger, the bolt already rushing to its target. The elf flinched backward with startling agility, the bolt sinking into his shoulder — a hit, but not a lethal one.

Bloodthorn burst from the cover of the forest, his mandibles clicking excitedly as he skittered over the road toward the elf. Kedaar cocked another bolt, cursing his own impatience. The second shot missed, brushing close enough to the elf’s head to ruffle his hair. The ravager had seized Istahn’s leg in its jaws, tearing at the leather of his pants. Grunting, he kicked the chittering creature with his free leg and broke for the woods on the other side of the road.

Kedaar drew out a handful of bolts, smirking faintly. Go ahead and run, elf, he thought. Not that it’ll do you any good. Bright spots of blood spattered the stones of the road, leading off in the direction that the elf had fled. Though he hadn’t been wounded very badly, there was more blood on the leaves and the ground, and it would lead him directly to his prey. Wounded and cornered, the blood elf would fight ferociously, but Kedaar was prepared for that, too. And he had an advantage — an ally in Bloodthorn, whose thirst for blood far exceeded either his or the elf’s.

He crested a small hill, the trail of blood spots now smaller and further apart. He must have bandaged himself, Kedaar reasoned. At the top of the hill, a small gap in the rocks led to what appeared to be a small cave. The elf had to be in there. It was a good hiding place; Kedaar was sure that he could not fit through the gap himself, but he could certainly shoot into it. He fired a first bolt, then a second, his head cocked for any sound, but he heard nothing but the hollow thunk of the bolt striking the stone. The cave had to be larger than it appeared on the outside, or perhaps he was hiding behind a corner. He’d send Bloodthorn through the gap and —

Sound erupted behind him, the ravager’s shrill chittering screech. The elf had got behind them somehow; Kedaar was baffled, surely he would have noticed, but there he was, his blades slashing at Bloodthorn’s armored legs. The ravager reared, leaping onto the elf with his sharp forelegs, trying to pin Istahn down as his long teeth snapped the air. Fumbling, Kedaar loaded his crossbow, lifting his sights onto his prey’s head. It was impossible to get a clear shot, Bloodthorn now straddled the elf and was tearing at his wounded shoulder. Through the sights Kedaar saw the elf’s short blade, its serrated edge dripping with poison, slip up between the plates of the ravager’s underside. Bloodthorn gave a shuddering screech of pain, and Kedaar winced as he saw the flood of black ichor that poured from the wound, but the ravager did not relent. He had to get in a shot, had to do something. Kedaar put bolts into the elf’s thigh, but was unable to reach anything vital — not without the chance of hurting Bloodthorn. The ravager staggered, its front claws slashing weakly at the elf, and Istahn sunk his other blade to its hilt. Bloodthorn uttered a plaintive cry, surprised and perhaps apologetic, as his legs crumpled beneath him.

Roaring, Kedaar drew his sword from its scabbard, charging the elf who was struggling to stand. Though agile, Istahn had been wounded in the shoulder and thigh, and the ravager had torn several gory gashes on his chest and midsection. He couldn’t react in time to avoid Kedaar’s attack, and the draenei bore down upon him, blind with fury. But his heart wasn’t in it, and Kedaar threw the sword aside once the elf stopped moving. Trembling, he knelt beside the ravager’s side, laying a broad hand on its body. It shouldn’t have been like this, Kedaar thought, his eyes stinging. Gingerly, he lifted the ravager’s body and placed him inside the cave, piling rocks in the narrow entrance so that nothing would disturb him. It wasn’t much, but it was better than leaving him lying out in the open like the elf.

The reward — he had almost forgotten about it. Kedaar took the sword up again, and with a swift, sure strike he chopped the elf’s right hand from his arm. The ring finger bore a signet, that was certain to be proof enough for Vassanta. The money was no consolation, not now, gold could never buy Bloodthorn back. He wrapped the bloody hand in a cloth and stuffed it into his pack, setting out on the road into the Plaguelands.

Vassanta’s relief was palpable when he set the gory trophy onto the table in the bar. She thanked him enough to make him feel embarrassed, and she paid him even more than she’d promised. Kedaar accepted it with a polite nod, but he felt hollow and false. The girl pried the ring off and turned it over curiously, and after a moment’s hesitation she put it into her pocket. He thought that was a strange thing to do, but he said nothing.

“Is that all, then?” he asked, still feeling numb and far away. He hoped that she didn’t notice, hoped that she wouldn’t ask what was the matter.

Vassanta smiled, the first real one he’d seen. “Yes,” she answered. “I think it’s finished.”

[Story] One More Chance XV

“A BLOOD ELF, Vajarra?” Vassanta was shouting now, but Vajarra didn’t think she realized it. The guard did though, and he kept looking over at them. He shifted his weight, and looked between the two of them.

“Will you stop shouting?” Vajarra hissed, gathering her books up hastily. She could feel the curious eyes of the other attendants on her. Thank goodness most of them were out right now, down in the main terrace doing their prayers.

“I’m not shouting,” Vassanta shouted, stomping after Vajarra as she hurried out of the temple. “But what in the Nether are you doing with a blood elf, huh?”

Vajarra darkened again. “I’m not doing anything with him! He’s my student!” She turned on her heel, and nearly walked into the guard who had been watching them.

“Something the matter here?” Vajarra was secretly pleased that he was looking at Vassanta. After all, she was the one shouting.

“Personal matter, Vindicator,” Vassanta snapped, still glaring at her sister. The guard’s frown deepened, and he gave Vajarra what she believed was a sympathetic glance before he walked back to his post, his tail swaying.

“He said you kissed him, Vajarra, just what are you teaching this “student” of yours?”

Vajarra gaped at her. “I did not!” She couldn’t believe that Vassanta was accusing her of such things — Vassanta, of all people! “He kissed my hand because he’s a gentleman, but that’s it and–” she halted, blinking. “Wait a minute, who said that?”

The way Vassanta’s eyes went wide, Vajarra knew that whatever she said would be a lie. She used to look like that whenever she got into trouble with their mother and father. “A friend of mine,” she said, crossing her arms. “But still, what do you think you are doing?”

Vajarra couldn’t believe her ears. “So you’re spying on me?”

Her sister snorted a little. “No.”

“So if you’re not spying on me… you’re spying on him? Why?”

Vassanta shook her head in frustration. “That doesn’t matter, tell me what you’re–”

Vajarra felt angry, more keenly than her usual exasperation with Vassanta’s half-truths. She felt that something was going on that she ought to know about, especially if she were somehow involved in it. “Stop lying to me, Vass.”

Her mouth clapped shut and she scowled faintly again. “All right, look, he’s… do you remember when those blood elves captured me?”

She did, although she hadn’t found out about until much after the fact. Vajarra just knew that her sister had disappeared from her scouting mission, and only found out what happened several months later, when they reunited in Stormwind. The details were fuzzy, Vajarra just assumed that she wasn’t eager to talk about it.

“That’s him,” Vassanta said, settling back in a chair, touching her broken horn-tip absently.

“What do you mean, that’s him? How do you know?” Vajarra couldn’t imagine Istahn doing something like that. He seemed so nice.

Vassanta gave her a steely glare. “I just do, okay? And he’s been bothering me lately, so I’m keeping an eye on him.”

The priestess nearly dropped her books. “You aren’t going to hurt him, are you? He’s changed now, Vass, I’m teaching him about the naaru.”

“I can’t believe I am hearing this,” Vassanta said, and Vajarra could hear the disdain in her tone. It made Vajarra angry again. Even if Istahn had done those things — and she didn’t believe he had — he was seeking atonement now. Vassanta was still staring at her, in that stubborn way. “Fine, you know what? You want to help him? Tell him to go back to Silvermoon city.”

Vajarra frowned. “How is that going to help? The naaru are here.”

For a moment she thought that Vassanta wasn’t going to answer; she was gathering up her sword and tying it onto her belt. “You want him to be safe, right? Well he’s not safe here.” Without another word, her sister strode out into the street, leaving her alone in the small room.

She was sure that Istahn would straighten all of this out. He hadn’t lied to her, at least she didn’t think that he had. But what was she supposed to say? She was certain he hadn’t done the things Vassanta had accused him of; to even ask him would probably offend him. She could imagine his thin eyebrows pointing up in surprise.

He was by the pond again, as he promised he would be. Vajarra smiled cautiously and sat down on the bench beside him. He was wearing a fancy shirt, and he smelled nice, like some kind of spice. As soon as she sat down, he started to talk, asking her about things he’d read in the book, and she felt terrible having to change the subject. He must have seen something in her expression, because he took her hands in his and squeezed them gently. His hands were very soft.

She decided not to ask him if he had done those things or not. It wouldn’t matter to Vassanta, either way. “Istahn, I think you are in danger,” she said, her voice hardly above a whisper. He did raise his eyebrows, just as she’d imagined. “You should leave the city, I don’t know where, but I don’t think it’s safe for you here.” He didn’t say anything, and she felt compelled to continue. “I’m so sorry, I know you wanted to learn and I want to teach you, but it’s not worth putting yourself in danger…”

He touched her shoulder, a light but firm touch. “I know,” he said, “And I am grateful that you are thinking of my safety. Not many people do.” She smiled uncertainly, what did that mean?

She still thought she should say something else, to fill the silence that hung in the air. “Maybe when it’s safe, you can come back again,” she said, gesturing toward the pond. Then a thought occurred to her, and she picked up the little book that she had lent to him. “Take that with you,” she said, pressing it into his hands. “Then we’ll have something to talk about when you return.”

Istahn smiled, and she was sure that her ears were burning again. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about next time we meet, my dear.”