It was a foolish thing to do, Vajarra was well aware. But who was there to prevent her from going? She had told the Grand Anchorite that she would be gone for a short time, and he nodded solemnly and asked nothing further. A pilgrimage, that’s what she would have said had he asked, and that was largely the truth. From the bustling Lower City market she had bought a riding dress, of a coarse, rough fabric dyed dark green. Good-natured Tiros stood patiently as she tied her pack to his saddle, and the groom had brushed his grey coat to a shimmer. Vajarra wished belatedly that she had a plain-looking horse to ride, so she might draw less attention; the people in the distant towns had never seen a talbuk before and it might raise suspicions. But there was no time for that, and she knew that Tiros was calm and gentle. She’d told the breeder in Telaar specifically the sort of animal she wanted, and he had not disappointed her.
Vajarra had never gone anywhere by herself like this. When they fled from the ruined capital, her entire family had been there, and the other refugees. When Vassanta was missing, she took the ship across the ocean to the elf lands, but then too there had been many others, some of whom were familiar. They watched over her, made certain that nothing happened. There was no one to watch over her now, no one to protect her from danger. Maybe she should not go after all… but if she didn’t, who would? She was the only one who cared enough to go, and if it was too dangerous and she had to turn back, then at least she could say she tried her best.
The gryphon master arched a shaggy brow when she asked how to get to the Ghostlands. You can’t, he said, and she wasn’t sure if she was going to scold her or laugh at her. The dwarf explained that they would only fly as far as the chapel, past that she would have to ride. But it was dangerous — very dangerous, he said. She could still change her mind, still back out, but Vajarra put the silver into his hand and climbed into the gryphon’s saddle.
A clinging mist lay over the land, obscuring all but the tops of the trees from view; even those bore the marks of the Scourge that still ravaged there, twisted and barren. Vajarra tried not to imagine how much worse things would look when she landed. There were ghosts, she knew, and skeletons that walked. She’d seen a ghost once before, outside the ruins of Auchindoun, but it didn’t even notice her. It simply passed by, a whisper of a chill as it passed purposefully toward its destination. A restless soul, seeking solace. That’s why she was here, after all.
There were more people at the chapel than she imagined, it was nearly enough to be called a small town. Most wore the silver and black colors of the Argent Dawn, though she recognized the brazen red armor of some Scarlets as well. Vajarra was puzzled by this; she thought the two groups to be opposed, but admittedly she knew very little of either. And times were changing, certainly. Who could have imagined that orcs would be permitted to live within Shattrath’s walls one day? Holding the hem of her riding-dress up over the mud, Vajarra made her way to the stable, thankful that no one seemed to be paying her any mind.
Vajarra reminded herself not to stare at the stablemaster — a fellow who was not only a walking skeleton, but was missing his lower jaw — as she led Tiros out of the stable. The stablemaster closed the stall after him and tipped his hat in a jaunty fashion, adding to the strangeness of it all. She supposed that if he didn’t mind being dead and having no jaw, she shouldn’t feel sorry for him. Leading Tiros to a stump, she climbed onto his saddle and picked up the reins, giving the talbuk’s silver neck a pat. No one asked what she was doing, or where she was going, though part of her hoped that they would. Someone like you shouldn’t be here, it’s far too dangerous. You should just turn back and go home. But no one said that, even as she turned Tiros onto the worn road and left the chapel behind.
She’d gone to the library in the Keep, and found an old map of Lordaeron. That’s what these lands were once, just as the Netherstorm was once Farahlon. On the map she also found the lush and beautiful forest that was now called the Ghostlands. A large gatehouse marked the border between the two. It didn’t look terribly far away, but she didn’t know what she might find on the road, and she hoped she would not have to sleep in these eerie hills overnight.
The road was wide and had once been well-traveled, and the steady talbuk had no difficulty making good time. She could see that his eyes and nostrils were wide with apprehension, his ears swiveling about. She could tell this place was wrong, though the creature could sense it more keenly than she could. She thought she saw a wolf skulking among the trees, and something that looked like an enormous bat. Whatever creatures lived here must have been affected, the very land itself was scorched a sickly brown, and the waters ran murky with taint. How did the animals survive? What did they eat? Vajarra shivered at the thought. They crossed an old bridge, its planks grey with rot and it creaked beneath their weight. There was a town ahead, perhaps she could ask someone there for directions. Maybe someone would even be willing to serve as a guide.
Tiros stiffened as they approached the town, giving a loud snort. At first, Vajarra did not see what had spooked him, frowning faintly at the empty doorways. It took her a moment to understand; there were no people here, not alive, at any rate. Unseen claws tugged at her arms, and she shrieked in alarm, kicking Tiros into a gallop. The talbuk snorted again, tossing his head as he veered off the road into the brush. Vajarra did not try to rein him back, trusting him to run where he thought it would be safe. They reached the edge of a lake, its water sickly green, and Tiros paced along its banks, snorting his agitation. Vajarra no longer felt the ghostly claws on her, but she still felt that they were being watched. She leaned down to stroke the animal’s neck, as much to reassure herself as to calm him. They followed the lake’s edge, giving the haunted village a wide berth, until she could no longer see the rooftops.
They crossed another bridge, this one more solidly built of stone, though the river below had dried up long ago. Vajarra stopped to look at the map again, she had meticulously copied the one in the heavy old book from the library. Soon they would pass a tower, and beyond that should be the gate. In spite of the earlier scare, she had to admit that she was beginning to enjoy this adventure. It would make a fine story when she got back to the Temple, and everyone would be impressed by her bravery and cleverness and dedication.
Her heart raced faster as they passed the crumbling tower, overlooking the road. They were so close! She wasn’t certain how she would find what she sought once she crossed the border though, that part of her plan had been vague. Vajarra supposed she would rely upon luck, and the naaru’s guidance, for it was their errand that brought her here — though they did not yet know it, perhaps.
And there it was, the great gate-house that stood guard over the ancient forest. It was built of a gleaming white stone that must have been magnificent in its day, though now marred by cracks and the moss that clung to its seams. Vajarra recognized the elven architecture, the ornate spires in their bright colors that now felt sad and abandoned. If she lived here, she assured herself, she would take care of this gate. There were no guards to stop her or turn her away, though she could see a small staircase that led to what must be the guards’ quarters above. Tiros stepped through the gate, pausing to lift his head and smell the air.
The forest was beautiful, Vajarra had not expected that. Where the Plaguelands felt like a raging fever, this place was more the cool stillness of a tomb, hung thick with cobwebs and undisturbed for centuries. There were strange creatures here too, she could hear them scurrying in the brush, and their eerie calls from time to time. The road was not as wide, not as well-traveled here, and Vajarra kept her steed to a walk. She had to look for clues, something out of the ordinary, though in truth she had no idea what that might be. It all looked out of the ordinary to her.
She saw what looked like a temple, though a temple to what — she couldn’t be sure. The sides were built like a staircase, and spikes rose from each corner. It made her uneasy, like the haunted village, and she wanted to pass it quickly. There was a rise beyond, someplace she could look out over the area, and maybe stop to rest. Her legs were beginning to stiffen from riding for so long, and she was ravenously hungry. There was no place to tie Tiros, but Vajarra did not worry that he would run away. She untied her pack from his saddle and fed him a slice of fruit, settling down on the rocks to eat her own lunch. She was surprised when he dropped it, half-eaten, and tossed his head. He loved these fruits; she’d bought them once from an elf in the Lower City market, and Tiros had been crazy about them ever since. His eyes were rolled back in alarm, his ears pinned back, and he lifted his hooves in agitation. Was there something here? Vajarra could not see or hear anything, but of course her senses were not as acute as the talbuk’s. She followed his gaze, to a small cave that split the rock they were sitting on. Was there something hiding inside? She could not see anything, most of the narrow entrance was blocked by stones, anyway. As she drew closer she could smell something though, the smell of something dead and rotting. She glanced back to Tiros, frowning a little. That must be what had upset him, and she couldn’t blame him, she didn’t want to eat here any longer either. She hesitated, reaching out to touch one of the stones. She didn’t want to see what was behind them, but she had to. Because what if it was him? She couldn’t come all this way and then miss it because she was a little squeamish. Besides, she’d seen plenty of horrible things when she worked in the medical ward.
Carefully, she loosened the stones and piled them beside her, until the cave’s secret showed itself. It wasn’t his body after all, but Vajarra thought that it was a clue. A ravager, a knife driven between the plates of its underbelly. What were the chances that a ravager would find its way here, unless brought by a hunter? A hunter, say, who was sent to find a certain elf? Vajarra thought hard as she stacked the stones again, covering the body once more from view. It looked like a grave, and though she felt a bit silly doing so, she blessed the creature’s resting place, whispering a short prayer for it.
He had to be close by, she reasoned, but though she searched every inch of the ridge, she could not find Istahn’s body. Had he been buried? None of the ground looked disturbed, and it seemed far too rocky to dig to any depth. One of the elves must have taken him back to the city, then, to be buried. This reassured her somewhat, but not really, for she couldn’t be sure that it had happened. If he was wandering still, his soul caught somewhere in between, she had to put it to rest. She couldn’t bear the thought of him being in torment, even after death, it just didn’t seem fair. At last, she walked to her pack again, drawing out a vial of water. It glowed coolly in her grip, and it seemed bright in the dark forest. She crouched on the dark ground, letting the drops of holy water fall from her fingers. If he was here, let him now be at rest. And if he wasn’t, she would keep searching.
A voice startled her, and she dropped the vial, but fortunately it landed in the soft earth rather than the rock, and she was able to save most of its contents. She blinked, uncomprehending, down at the elf on the road. He spoke again, this time in Common. “What are you doing?”
He looked small, smaller than Istahn even, and impossibly thin. His hair was light, almost white, and he had spectacles. He was wearing a long robe, and he was walking alone. Vajarra thought that he looked afraid, but that was ludicrous. Why should he be afraid of her? She capped the vial of holy water hurriedly and tucked it into her belt. She gestured toward the ground. “I was… um, I was looking for someone.” She had done nothing wrong, and she tried to sound assured and confident, but she doubted that she did.
The thin elf frowned, and shifted his books to his other arm as he studied her. “Someone here?” He made no motion to come nearer, in fact he looked as if he might decide to turn and run away.
Vajarra decided to take that risk, taking hold of Tiros’ reins and making her way down the ridge. The elf’s ears slid backward, but perhaps he had recognized that she was no threat to him. Vajarra did not think she looked very intimidating, and she wasn’t carrying any weapons. “A friend of mine,” she explained, smiling broadly in what she hoped was a reassuring way. “I was told that he was… killed here. I don’t think he was buried properly, I was worried about his spirit.”
For a moment, she thought that the elf didn’t believe her, that he was going to turn and run for the guards. But he raised a thin pale brow and asked, “And he was a sin’dorei, you say?”
“Yes, yes, if you could find out what became of him — oh, you could, couldn’t you!” Vajarra looked at him eagerly, awaiting his answer.
He shifted his books back to his other arm. They looked heavy. “It’s rather unorthodox…” he paused to push his spectacles back up. “But I am in fact, an archivist — well, a junior archivist. I could look into it, I suppose.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Vajarra resisted the urge to hug him, she thought that he might break. That, or he might get spooked and run away. “Do you have something I could write…” She glanced at his pile of books.
He was already fumbling with the stack, dropping one in the process, and produced a small leather-bound book not unlike the prayer book she’d given to Istahn. She felt a little stab of pain at that. Vajarra took it and neatly wrote both Istahn’s name, and her own, followed by “Temple of Aldor, Shattrath City”.
“I appreciate this, I know you’re probably not–” She stopped as he gave her a wide-eyed look.
“You’re — oh, priestess, forgive me, I didn’t know you were… with the Aldor–”
She was surprised by his reverence, but also a little embarrassed. “There’s no need to apologize,” she said, picking up the dropped book and brushing the dirt from its cover. “Here.”
“I’m studying the Light too, I mean, not in the manner of the blood knights,” he amended hurriedly, and she saw his ear-tips darken. “I’m terribly sorry about that.”
Vajarra nodded, uncertain what to say to that. “It’s all right,” she said at last, though it wasn’t really, it was just something to say so he’d stop fidgeting. “Why don’t you write to me and we can discuss it more?”
He brightened, nodding. “I will, I’d like that a great deal, and I’ll go to the library as soon as I get to the city and find out about this–” he frowned, reading over the name again. “Dawnstrike? Hrm.”
Vajarra didn’t hear the hesitation in his voice, climbing back onto the talbuk’s back. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” she offered.
The pale elf uttered a little laugh, and she suspected that he didn’t do it often. “I’m sure, but thank you, priestess.”