[Story] One More Chance XXIV

The letter had been waiting for her at the Temple when she returned, sealed and wrapped primly with a red ribbon. Vajarra had to admire the archivist’s efficiency, she hadn’t expected him to get back to her for several weeks, if at all. He could just as well have forgotten about it, but perhaps he’d been intrigued by the puzzle himself. It was thick, she could feel the weight of it through the paper envelope, traced with delicate patterns. And say what one will about the sin’dorei, Vajarra couldn’t help but marvel at the swift, neat penmanship.

Brother Sunsorrow had copied out every bit of information that he could find, it seemed, covering the front and back of several pages of parchment. She certainly hadn’t expected him to be so thorough. There was some general information about his family; the Dawnstrike clan was numerous, the majority having served beneath Prince Kael’thas at one point or another. So Vassanta had not lied about that. Vajarra had known that, deep down, but it still didn’t matter. She frowned, turning the first page over. There were records from his schooling, and Vajarra felt a bit like she was intruding into some private place. Did they keep such records at the temple? She didn’t think they did, but she wondered if someone might come and read the entirety of her life in neat little script on fancy paper. Istahn had enrolled in what appeared to be some sort of military academy, and did well enough to earn some commendations. Then there it was, in stark black ink: Led a unit of Sunhawk scouts to secure Bloodmyst Isle, and maintain the Sun Gate. She set the page down, aware of her hand’s trembling. He’d been responsible for the death of countless draenei, whether directly or by those beneath his command. Those fortunate enough to survive the initial impact had been hunted by the Sunhawk scouts at every turn. She had to believe that he regretted it now, otherwise why would he have come to her? If she ever got the chance, she would be certain to ask him, if only to put her own worries to rest.

After the Sun Gate was destroyed, it seemed that Istahn had renounced his ties to Kael’thas, and rejoined his brethren in Silvermoon city. There were a few records of “incidents” with the guards, but he hadn’t been arrested. No record of any marriages and, as the archivist wrote, underlined for emphasis: No record of death.

It didn’t relieve her worries any, rather it increased them. If the city had no record of his death, it meant that his body was still out there, somewhere. She couldn’t go back, it would be impossible to search every inch of the vast, dark forest, and by now the animals… Vajarra shook her head, not wanting to imagine it. Gathering up the pages, she tucked them back into the envelope that smelled faintly of incense, and descended the ramp toward the chamber where A’dal and the portals awaited. She needed to go to Stormwind, while you could buy anything imaginable in Shattrath, the human city still had the nicest candles. Besides, she thought she might stop at the Library for a time, to read up on some high elf history.

When she stepped into the market square, she saw a ghost. Or that is what she thought at first, staring in disbelief at the Draenei warrior before her. Aziron, the grim and merciless, who had watched over her in Varul’s absence, had never returned from battle. Yet here he was, placidly looking over the axes laid out on the merchant’s table.

“You aren’t dead.” It was the first thing that came to mind, and she couldn’t help from speaking it aloud.

He wore his helm, even here in the city, as he always did. But she knew him well enough to know what expression he was making. “No. Did you think I was?”

No hello, no how are you, but she couldn’t be surprised. That had never been his way. She frowned at him, her brow furrowed. “Yes, of course I did! You never came back! You could have told me–”

Aziron had lifted an axe from the table and was inspecting its gleaming edge with close scrutiny. “Oh. I thought my father would have.”

She stared at him for a moment. Had he always been so impassive? Didn’t he feel badly about abandoning her like that — had he even missed her at all? “He didn’t, I returned to the Temple,” she said, crossing her arms close over herself. “I couldn’t stay there alone.”

He nodded, laying the axe back down again. Apparently it did not pass his inspection. “Understandable.” Vajarra watched him anxiously, hoping he might explain himself. Instead, he picked up his sword that had been leaning against the table, tying the scabbard onto his belt. “I must go now, I am needed at the front.”

“What? You’re leaving again?” Vajarra couldn’t believe what she was hearing. He paused to give her a curious glance and nodded before he turned toward the gryphon roost. She wanted to yell after him, but what good would that do? She crouched at the curb, fighting to keep the tears from escaping. Why did everyone have to leave? They didn’t even seem to care that she was left behind, lost and alone. Varul, now Aziron… Vajarra felt the letter inside of her robe. There was a chance that Istahn could come back, wasn’t there? His body had never been found. She’d thought both Varul and Aziron were dead, yet both came back later. It was small and cold comfort, but right now it was all she had, and she seized it eagerly.

[Story] One More Chance XXIII

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.”

[Story] Distant Wails VIII

Ornasse knew the Dream well, even measured in Azeroth’s time, he had spent thousands of years roaming its verdant trails. The problem was not one of navigation, rather finding the missing Sentinel. He felt helpless, frustrated by his failure to come up with a suitable plan. While he did not relish the idea of roaming aimlessly in search of Ahlara, he had to admit that the situation could have been far worse. Elune had favored them thus far, perhaps a little luck would be all they would need.

They had not roamed far from the cavernous place they had arrived; on foot they would make time very slowly indeed. But the Nightmare’s taint was lessened here, and Ornasse had to assume that Ahlara would seek its safety rather than try to fight her way through. So here, at the Nightmare’s creeping edge, was their best chance to come across her.

Certainly they were safer, but the primeval forests were not yet without danger. Ornasse beckoned the little whelp closer to his side, she had flitted back into the dark tangle of trees and he didn’t want her to disappear. He remembered all too well the fates of some of her kin, who now turned against the very thing they were born to protect. Ornasse could not begin to imagine the torment that the tainted green flight must feel, tearing the Dream apart with their own claws. Naeva halted, her long ears quivering.

“Did you hear–”

Something heavy dropped beside them with a heavy thump, sending a cloud of leaves and twigs scattering; it took him a moment to realize that it was where the little dragon had just been. Ornasse could hear her shrill cry of protest, so Sorona was alive, at least. The thing rose beside him, emerging from the undergrowth. Naeva had already moved around behind it, her daggers drawn. With a choked cry, it sprang toward him, all flailing limbs and flashing teeth. A drake, or it had once been, now claimed by the encroaching Nightmare. Its jaws, grown over with a black, choking vine, sank into his upper arm, and it felt as if it was trying to coil itself around him. He could feel poison searing in the bite, but he should have enough time — he hoped. He heard Naeva’s blades whickering nearby, severing the black vines from the little drake’s body. Ornasse fell to all fours, landing on satin paws, but there was little need. The drake lay on its back in the fallen leaves, its sightless eyes staring up at them, gasping for its last tortured breaths. The Nightmare had grown over and inside of it, choking the little creature from within and driving it mad. Returning to his elf form, he knelt beside it, hoping in vain that there might be something he could do, some way to reverse the corruption that had claimed it. A twinge of his arm reminded him of the drake’s venom, and he touched his fingers to the bite, glowing faintly green with healing light. Ornasse had to hope that there was nothing more harmful in that bite, that he too wouldn’t be corrupted in some way. He wanted to leave this place, and the realization filled him with regret, to imagine the day when he would no longer want to stay Dreaming.

Ornasse lifted his eyes to Naeva, who stood silently above them. Her blades, still bared, were edged with the unfortunate drake’s blood, and she wore an expression of such aching sadness at what they had done — out of duty, but the blood was still on their hands. She trembled faintly, from exertion or emotion, he couldn’t be sure, and she stood out brilliantly white against the dark forest behind her, a point of purity in the corruption. Ornasse was struck by sudden and pressing urge to have her right then and there, the inappropriateness of the time and place aside. He didn’t care.

She furrowed her brow at him, frowning at the bite and fumbling in her pack for a bandage. “You’re hurt, you have to keep it–”

It wasn’t going away, he wouldn’t be able to ignore it. He rose, sliding a hand around the small of her back and silencing her protest with a kiss. “It’s nothing,” he rumbled, tracing the smooth line of her jaw. Her brows shot up in surprise, or amazement, perhaps both.

“Ornasse, what are you doing?” She was staring up at him in wary disbelief as he worked his way up her side, unlacing her armor as he went.

That was a strange thing to ask, he thought, what did it seem like he was doing? Despite her hesitation she wasn’t pushing him away, and when he kissed her again she responded in kind, still trembling in his arms. He traced the length of her porcelain ear, and she shuddered, clutching him closer; her hand trailed down his chest enticingly.

“Well,” came Ahlara’s facetious tone, “Don’t let me interrupt.”

Both froze and jumped away from each other as if stung, their cheeks and ears darkening. There wasn’t really any reason to be embarrassed, it was natural after all, but Ornasse was mortified that she should find them in such a state. At least they still had their clothes on.

“Ahlara!” Naeva regained her composure more quickly than he did, rushing to her friend’s side. “Your leg! What happened?”

Ornasse was more intrigued by Ahlara’s companion; a wisp that hovered protectively nearby. It seemed agitated, flitting between the two women and then presumably at him.

“I’m fine,” Ahlara waved Naeva off, “It’s nothing.” She paused and looked up at Ornasse after a moment, then offered a faint smirk, “So. Did you two decide to come crash my vacation or was it a second honeymoon?”

Ornasse felt his ears burn fiercely and he coughed something in reply. Naeva cut in, “Rescuing you, of course!” His eyes darted over to his wife, whose face was flushed as his. He nodded earnestly.

Ahlara smirked between the two, then leaned on Naeva for support. “Well… thank you.” She paused to take in the drake’s corpse at Ornasse’s feet, but had no comment on it. He was thankful to have her attention somewhere else, if even for a short time.

“We can make camp over there,” Ornasse said, indicating a clearing in the dark tangle of woods. “Ahlara can rest and we can decide what we’ll do from here.” He hoped that he sounded convincingly confident; he must have, because the two women exchanged a glance and then nodded, Naeva helping her friend to walk on her injured leg. They were still hardly out of danger, but now that they had three pairs of eyes — plus the wisp — he felt a bit more secure.

He couldn’t mend the break fully, but Ornasse hoped that his meager healing might at least ease her pain, and Ahlara gave him a weary smile of thanks. “At least I’m mostly in one piece, huh?” she quipped, reclining against a mossy rock. Perhaps he was growing accustomed to her sarcastic manner, but he thought there was a genuine smile hidden somewhere in her smirk.

Ornasse paused to scratch Sorona’s chin, the whelp hovering close by him since the recent scare. “All of us are, thankfully.”

Naeva fussed over Ahlara for a time, seeing to her comfort, before settling in between her companion and Ornasse. Her eyes settled briefly on the small blue orb as it drifted between Ahlara and herself. “I’ll take first watch,” she cut in after a moment, her eyes never leaving the spirit.

Ornasse glanced up at Naeva and nodded. “Alright. Wake me if you start to get tired, I’ll take second–”

“No, I can take second,” Ahlara cut in, glancing between the two. “I have a broken leg, that doesn’t affect my ability to see or hear at all.” Naeva opened her mouth to respond but was cut off as Ahlara held a hand up, hearing no more. “Please.”

Naeva and Ornasse exchanged glances, then nodded. “Alright,” Naeva turned her attention back to Ahlara, “You can have second watch.”

Ornasse stifled a sigh. They were so much alike at times… both completely impossible.

[Story] Distant Wails VII

The already jumbled balance of the Dream shifted, though were it good or bad it was impossible to tell. Spirits and untainted elders knew not what to make of it… was the Dream suffering further? It was hard to determine how much more this vast world could take before everything merely succumbed to the Nightmare’s taint.

A small wisp drifted towards the source, quite curious as to whether or not it was merely getting worse or, he dared to hope, a sign that things were getting better. Or at least see what was causing further upheaval to the once sacred plane. Its fate would ultimately determine his, after all… the spirit of a gifted Druid trapped in the Dream’s realm with no means with which to depart. It was all he could do to hope that the Nightmare wouldn’t overcome every last inch of his home.

Almost as soon as the sensation had come it vanished. All the spirit could do was circle the area, seeking out any sign of anything out of line.

_____________________________

The earthen fragrance of the mossy carpet beneath her was what she’d first come to notice. As she took a deep breath she paused as she found the air to be much thicker than she’d expected from the barrow. Her heart skipped a beat as she recalled her former predicament. Moonglade.

The lashers.

Ahlara’s eyes snapped open and she pushed up from her earthen bed, then winced as a jolt of pain shot up her leg. Frantically she took in her surroundings, croaking hoarsely, “Mikhail!” Immediately she broke out into a fit of coughs. Her throat was so dry… how long had she been out? “Mikhail!” she called out again, clearer. Her only response was her echo throughout the dark cave.

Cave? Where exactly was she? More importantly, where was Mikhail? The cavern was nothing like the plant infested barrow she’d been fighting in before she’d lost consciousness.

“Mikhail!” she cried again, then began to crawl towards her feet. Her motions ceased at the agonizing pain pulsing from her leg once more.

After sputtering a stream of colorful curses, Ahlara regained herself. What good was she doing calling for him when she wasn’t even certain he could hear her? The last thing she needed to do was to attract anything that could take advantage of her in her condition. Before she went about doing something so foolish she’d need to first see to her injuries, then she’d survey her surroundings and seek out Mikhail. Or, for that matter, anyone. It was terribly unlikely she was the sole survivor of the ordeal.

Turning on to her side she looked down at the limb before curling over herself to unbuckle her boot carefully. Her face contorted into a scowl as each motion caused a twinge of pain. Judging by the feeling already she assumed she’d either severely bruised or even broken it. She could only pray it was the former.

A yelp escaped her throat as she began to gently tug her boot off, then tossed it aside with a heavy clank. For a moment she regarded the discarded plated garment as though it had been the very source of her pain, then turned her attention back to her foot.

Wonderful.

What Ahlara could see of her ankle and even her toes were swollen to almost twice its normal size. She felt an icy pit form in her stomach and sighed. That isn’t encouraging… She began to unbuckle her leg guards, working her way up quickly. The heavy mail and plate were terribly uncomfortable against her shin, so it was quite the relief when she was finally able to drop her mangled shin guard aside and peel the chain up to her knee.

More curses escaped her lips and she sighed. Her entire leg was swollen and marbled with purple, white, and red. Directly in the midst of it all was a small bulge from beneath the skin. She groaned. Oh yes. Broken.

Ahlara’s eyes wandered around the cave for anything to splint her leg with. As to be expected, of course, there was very little at her disposal. Though she did find her sword none too far from where she’d awoken, lying just out of her reach. She sighed.

Peeling her tattered tabard from over her armor, she turned her attention back to her leg. Ripping the purple garment down the middle she set aside half while beginning to bind her leg for whatever support and padding it would offer. At least until she was able to set and splint it.

With that task complete, she leaned back on her hands and used her bottom and good leg to ‘crab’ walk towards her weapon, her cheeks flushing in embarrassment even with no one to see. Her broken limb suffered a pang with each bump and motion along the way, but she was determined to leave the damp depths of the stony cavern. As she snatched up the sword and sheathed it at her side, she took in a quick survey of her surroundings, then started her awkward crawl towards the passage leading away.

The crawl was a long one. During her journey she had to stop to shed her gauntlets, unable to find a place to tote them, she was forced to leave them behind. It was a pity, really; the entire set had been a gift to her from her mentor when she’d finally completed her training. Such a memory brought about the realization that she’d yet to present Thandir with such a gift. Perhaps she could do so when she returned to Astranaar.

Ahlara set off once more, awkwardly crawling towards the cave’s mouth.

__________

The wisp sensed the intruder before it saw her and paused, stunned. In the clearing near the lips of a grotto was a Sentinel surrounded by several sticks she appeared to be sorting through. Her long teal hair was damp with sweat, sticking to her dirt splotched face. He knew her… there was no mistaking her. Ahlara.

He darted towards her quickly only pass right through her. She fell back, startled, and looked up at him. For a moment they regarded each other in silence, he unable to speak and thus unable to convey his delight in seeing her. It was a painful feeling, knowing he couldn’t communicate nor embrace her but not enough so to ruin this moment of joy.

“Est–” Ahlara paused, afraid to speak his name. A hand rose to cup her mouth, which had fallen agape. She knew him. Despite the years apart, she hadn’t forgotten his presence. “Estairyn…” she managed, muffled through her fingers. She could sense relief and joy that she did, in fact, recognize him. She dropped her hand and stared at him dumbly, “I must be dreaming…”

Dreaming. The word struck a dreadful realization. It explained why she didn’t recognize where she was, that Mikhail wasn’t at her side… that she was seeing Estairyn. Were it not for the throbbing pain in her leg it wouldn’t have occurred to her that she was awake within the Emerald Dream. Feeling quite dizzy by the revelation she leaned back against the rock and continued to stare at the blue wisp; all that remained of her brother. “Huh…” was all she could say.

Ahlara sensed concern from the small wisp and glanced up at him. Estairyn slowly lowered himself near her bound leg to examine it closer, reminding her of the injury. With a sigh of frustration she offered up a quick explaination, “Just a small break… I don’t know how I did it, though.”

Skepticism.

“Hrmph. It’s not that bad, I just need to get supplies together to splint it before I reset it… don’t look at me with that tone!” Ahlara snapped, sensing frustration and excess concern from the wisp. A genuine smile graced her lips, “I’m glad you’re here, Estairyn…”

Warmth and mutual feelings were returned instead of words.

A knot started to form in her throat once more before she shook her head and choked back the tears threatening to fall. She wouldn’t cry in front of him, she’d enjoy the time she’d been given. Looking down at her leg, then to the pile of sturdy straight sticks she’d gathered she let out a sigh. There were more than enough to give her ample support. All that was left to do was what she’d been procrastinating on.

It took only a moment before she had unbound her leg, setting the torn remnants of her tabard aside. She grimaced as she sensed irritation from her brother’s spirit, clearly not impressed with the ‘small break’. “Oh hush. I’ve had worse.” She flashed him a smirk, then took a deep breath as she looked back at the disfigured limb. “Alright…” letting her breath out slowly she pulled a small leather pouch from her belt and emptied the contents onto the ground before biting down onto it and taking another deep breath.

She felt the world jar as she began to feel down her leg, making certain it was broken only in the one location. Much to her relief it would be an easy enough set, albeit less than pleasant. After tracing the site several times she braced herself, then quickly used both her hands to jerk the bone back into places. The world blurred and for a moment she saw an explosion of colors and briefly black… only vaguely aware of her muffled scream into the leather.

Moments later she regained herself, laying on her back upon the cool grass. Panting lightly, she reached up to wipe tears from her eyes before pulling the leather from her mouth. She flashed a glare at Estairyn as he flitted about her frantically. That was one aspect she missed yet loathed about him: the inability to remain calm under such circumstances. “Calm down,” she groaned, then rolled up into a sitting position. She quickly set to the task of feeling out the bones to be assured it was, indeed, set. Upon meeting her satisfaction, her hands skillfully began their task of setting the splint, binding it securely with the remnants of her tabard.

Ahlara’s head spun as she finished and leaned back on her hands. Bowing her head she took slow, calming breaths… furrowing her brow. “Yes, I’m fine… just give me a moment…” the worry was really almost overwhelming. Then it stopped and was replaced with curiosity and pensiveness.

“What is it?” she glanced up at the wisp curiously.

Estairyn looked down at her, somewhat relieved. If the shift in the balance meant what it did before, perhaps it could be a way to help her out of the Dream. He could only hope it was Mikhail coming to find her… but why so far away? She wouldn’t be able to run with him to the source, but he couldn’t very well leave her alone, either. Not with the corruption spreading as it was throughout the Dream. It was unbelievably fortunate she hadn’t been discovered by the abominations resulting from the Nightmare already. Fortunately, he’d be able to sense danger soon enough to avoid it. That was the thought at least. Provided, of course, Ahlara could be convinced to follow him.

How he hated being voiceless.

As he focused on Ahlara once more, however, he was surprised to see her scooting towards a broken branch. He flitted after her curiously, then darted back as she drew her sword. … because her sword will inflict such a dire wound… Easy enough to forget his condition in her presence.

Ahlara hacked the smaller limbs off the dead wood, breaking it down to an appropriate walking-stick.

Huh. She still reads me like a book, he mused, then slowly drifted up to her side as she sheathed her weapon.

A couple of light durability tests later, she shifted and used it to pull herself to her good foot. Despite her pain and the extra effort it would take to leave the area, she was more than willing. None too surprising of Ahlara.

“Well… lead on,” she prompted, clearly aware that he had wanted to lead her somewhere.

It always amazed him that she’d follow him so blindly, even after all these years. Or had it been that long since his demise?

While a part of him wanted to know exactly how he’d ended up in this predicament, the other was afraid to discover the truth. Perhaps it was for the best he didn’t know. Not that he’d be able to ask if he’d wanted to. That was for the best, he was certain.

Ahlara cleared her throat, startling the wisp from its thoughts. “I can come back later, you know… if you’re too busy.” Her lips tugged into a faint smirk.

Estairyn stared at her a moment, then turned to drift away slowly. Were he able to chuckle, he would. She hadn’t changed too much at all. It was refreshing. They both took comfort in the other’s presence, needing not speak.

Slowly the two wandered into the feral wilds of the Emerald Dream, unknowing whether they’d find Ahlara’s rescue or face her own demise.

[Story] One More Chance XXII

Vajarra slid down from the hippogryff’s back, giving it a gentle pat before its handler took it to be unsaddled. The cool blue light and the dampness that hung in the air brought the memories back in a rush, and she was unable to fend them off. They had all taken that terrible journey, still wounded and aching from the losses that the blood-crazed orcs had inflicted upon them. Through the naaru’s grace, she had still had her entire family then; her father magnificent in his armor, keeping vigilant watch over all of them. Vajarra had wanted to cry, but there had been so many others who had lost so much more than their homes, she simply bit her tongue and did her best to help them. How could they have possibly known that their destination would also prove to be their undoing? She wondered now if Velen knew; if he’d simply accepted the Exodar’s imminent crash as acceptable sacrifice. He had to. If they stayed, the remaining survivors would be slain by the corrupted orcs; if they fled, many would be claimed when the Exodar crashed. Many, but not all. It was a difficult situation, and Vajarra could understand the choice from a logical standpoint, but she could not help feeling a bit angry.

She didn’t have many memories of the swamp, but she remembered that it was always wet, and rather cold, and smelled a bit strange. None of those things had changed since she’d last been here. Thankfully, the engineers had the good sense to build atop one of the enormous mushrooms, rather than in huts on the sodden ground. Here you could look out over the marsh, into the forest of stems, and it was almost beautiful.

Kestaan, the old Vindicator, was already here. She heard the soft scrape of his hooves on the wooden boards. “It is a lovely statue, isn’t it?”

She turned, her brows drawn, briefly puzzled until she saw it, looming behind him against the dark sky. Vajarra didn’t know if it was new, either way, she did not recall seeing it before now. It was a fountain, the figure of a draenei woman pouring water from two vessels. Below, water flowers floated lazily on the pond’s surface.

“A fitting monument,” he said, and Vajarra nodded silently. Everyone had lost something, some had lost everything. She wondered briefly which group he fell into. “Come around to this side,” he said, beckoning her over. “I want to show you something.”

Vajarra picked up the hem of her dress and walked across the boards, to where he stood on the other side of the statue. She looked up to it, and her breath caught in surprise.

What she had not seen from the other side of the statue, she saw now; the draenei woman held two girls, one in each of her arms. They were the same age, had the same features — twins. “I never noticed,” Vajarra said breathlessly. Only coincidence, perhaps, but it caught her off guard all the same.

“Hope,” the Vindicator said, “Hope for our future, for our children’s future, that we may live in a world of peace and harmony at last.”

Vajarra continued to study the statue, until finally she moved her gaze to him. “Is that why you asked me here, Vindicator?”

He allowed the faintest hint of a smile. “One reason, Anchorite. Come, look out over the marsh. Tell me what you see.”

She frowned a little, puzzled. That was an odd sort of question, the kind where the correct answer wasn’t the first one that came to mind. She stood at the railing, hesitant to get too close to the edge. “I see… mushrooms… the water.” She squinted up her a face a little, trying to see. “Oh, there are some creatures down there… a sporebat, I think.”

He nodded, though she was uncertain if she had answered correctly. “I see life, Anchorite. From the smallest Sporeling, to the largest mushroom… life thrives here in the marsh.”

Vajarra thought she understood, but she was still uncertain why he had asked her to come out here, in the darkness and rain, when she could have been back in the temple. “You never answered,” she said quietly, drawing her cloak around her for warmth.

“Well,” Kestaan said, scratching his tendrils thoughtfully. “There are often many reasons one might do something.” Vajarra sighed, and her exasperation must have shown in her expression, because he went on, reluctantly. “Do you wish to know what else I see, Anchorite?”

What was he talking about? She nodded, though she was still lost.

“I see a jewel, a bright point of Light in the darkness. I see someone who is need of care and protection.”

Vajarra was too stunned to do anything but blink blankly at him. She hadn’t told him her woes so he could use it as a means to take advantage of her. For all his talk of the Light, was he just like any other male?

“I-I’m flattered, but really, I’m fine,” Vajarra said, feeling her ears burn. He was old enough to be her grandfather, just what was he suggesting?

He was wounded by her protest, she could tell though he hadn’t said a word. She didn’t want to hurt him, of course, but was she supposed to agree to it simply because he had offered? Still, she did appreciate his concern, and she laid a cautious hand on his. “Thank you though, really.”

Kestaan nodded, that implacable expression upon his features once more. Whatever may have been there was now well hidden. “If you should need me… at any time, I will come.”

She thanked him again and excused herself, anxious to be out from beneath his gaze; it felt like she was being judged. Maybe it would be a good idea, she thought, chewing her lip as she settled into her room for the night, pulling the covers up to her chin. The inn was cold, even with the fire burning, and still felt damp even here. She no longer had Varul to take care of her, and Vassanta was busy at the front; would it be so bad to have the Vindicator with her? She had always had someone to protect her, to shield her from the harsh and dangerous world outside, and now there was no one. Why not just say yes, then? Vajarra had no answer to that as she blew the candle out.

[Story] Quarry II

[[ This story is part of One More Chance, taking place between XXI and XXII. ]]

I blamed her for what happened to Bloodthorn. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help it. I could have walked away. Could have been more careful. But I keep coming back to the fact that I wouldn’t have even been there if not for her. No one said feelings had to be logical.

It doesn’t matter though. Lay the blame where you like… him, her, me. The result is still the same. I feel like part of me is missing, like I’m the one whose hand is gone. There’s an empty space where Bloodthorn used to be, and it feels like everything is slowly leaking out.

That’s a bit maudlin, isn’t it. I drank way too much, that’s not helping. I went to the city in the swamp, I heard there was some good work there. And it was far, far away from that place where I buried his body. I saw the sister there, in the tavern. I told her. I know I shouldn’t have, I could see how much she hurt when I said it. She had nothing to do with it, but I did it anyway. I’m not proud of it. I guess maybe I figured if I spread it around, maybe I’ll hurt less.

I did some work for the humans there, something political. Not really my usual kind of job, but it paid well. I didn’t ask questions. So then I hear there’s a goblin settlement further out in the swamp. Goblins pay even better, because it’s the kind of stuff no one wants to do. The swamp is awful, mud as deep as your hocks and it stinks when it dries. Huge spiders, those damned fish-people, everything. It’s also stuffed full of crocolisks and those things don’t let go once they’ve got hold.

And raptors. Draenor has some, in the jagged mountains that bordered Farahlon. These ones were different though, slimmer, and you can see the intelligence in their eyes. They moved in groups too, it looked like, gathered around in a clearing. The place was littered with bones, picked clean. That’s when I saw the big one. He was older, bigger, his skin scarred from fights. Clearly the meanest bastard of the bunch. I knew I couldn’t hunt alone forever. As much as it hurt to admit it, I needed to replace Bloodthorn, without him I was only half a hunter. I thought that this raptor just might be up to the job. I remembered a flyer on the post, back in the goblin town. They were offering a reward for him. It seemed like the poster had been there for a long time.

I admit I don’t know much about raptors, but some things are universal. He watched me with his yellow eyes as I laid down a trap, setting the spring carefully. I moved back into the cover of the bushes, away from the rest of the pack. A predator won’t go for dried meat, it wants blood. So I still had some of the meat I keep for Bloodthorn, separate from my own rations. It had gone a little bit off, but predators don’t mind that either. I unwrapped it and I tossed it down onto the ground in front of the trap.

I’m pretty sure he laughed, if you can picture that. His snakey head bobbed and his jaws parted, I could see the rows of teeth. I liked those teeth. He stood there, jaws open, watching me. The long claws on his hind feet tapped the ground. I liked those claws too, but I had to be careful that one of them didn’t gut me. He looked ancient, his skin the color of the surrounding swamp. The raptor’s head swung around, looking at the meat, and for a second I thought he was going to go for it. But he went for me instead.

He leapt fully over the trap with a screech, those big claws hoisted up. I was knocked down, flat on my tail, and thankfully I was wearing chain mail or I’d have been unzipped right there. I fumbled and threw another trap down, praying it’d work without setting the spring. It snapped, and the frost crept up over the raptor’s leg, holding him still. He screamed and tried to slash at the trap with his claws as I unhooked the lariat from my belt. “Sorry about this,” I told him, looping it over his head. It was only temporary, but I still hated doing it.

The raptor bucked and slashed, his eyes flashing hate at me as I tethered him to a tree. He was strong, much stronger than Bloodthorn was, and a few times I thought he’d drag me off. I spent the next few days there by that tree, a few times some of his pack mates wandered by and I had to shoot into the air to scare them off. It’s a bit like a ritual and a bit like a date, a careful give and take dance. The key is respect, and proving you’re worthy to hunt together. Some animals are easy, throw them a few pieces of meat and they’ll follow you. But that’s not the kind I wanted.

By the end of the third day, I let him off the tether. He didn’t kill me, and he didn’t turn and run. He was still wary though, and still mad, he’d gape his jaws and hiss at me sometimes when he thought I wasn’t looking. I talked to him like I talked to Bloodthorn, while I worked and around the fire at night. The sound of your voice is important for them to learn. I don’t know if it was my imagination but he’d cock his head and watch me when I talked, sure made it seem like he was interested in my stories. You won’t be so interested when you’ve heard them a dozen times, raptor.

We were both restless by then, and I was out of meat. It was time to take him hunting. He responded well to signals, I had taught him one for “return to me”. I didn’t figure he would need to be told to attack. The claws were good. Really good. The only downside is they sometimes ruin the skins, but I found myself accepting that maybe this new companion wasn’t so bad. I felt guilty about it. I hoped Bloodthorn would understand.

[Story] One More Chance XXI

The naaru did not have any answers for her today. Between her ritual prayers, Vajarra had stolen into a quiet corner and begged for anything, the smallest hint or scrap of meaning that would soothe her. She dared not trouble A’dal with such a thing; his searing light had much more pressing matters to see to than one anchorite’s troubled heart. Instead, Vajarra sought V’eru. She felt a particular affinity for this naaru, initially because of its name — as a child she had been delighted to think that they shared a first letter. But in time she had come to trust V’eru with her secrets, and appreciated its frank nature. V’eru rested within its alcove, its crystalline arms throwing bright sky-blue light onto the walls. As Vajarra approached, its hue shifted subtly, turning to a purple along its edges.

Hello, child.

Each of them had a different feeling, a particular flavor to their voice, if one were to listen carefully enough. Not many did, but Vajarra had shared her mind with them since she was very small. V’eru’s voice was patient and cool, never hurried and never agitated. Vajarra knelt before the naaru, the light playing patterns over her robe.

She hesitated, before she spoke quietly. “V’eru, I have come to ask your will. Why was my friend taken away?”

V’eru’s color slid darker, the center of the crystalline branches darkening to the color of the deep ocean. She hoped she had not offended it, and it took a long time to answer.

The path of the Light is not always clear, Vajarra. Patience…

Vajarra tried not to frown. It’s what the Grand Anchorite had said, too. She was normally a patient person, certainly much moreso than Vassanta, but this time she was finding it difficult. She nodded, her throat unable to find any more words, and was about to rise, when she heard V’eru’s voice in her mind once more.

Your kindness will not be forgotten, child. This I can promise to you.

She nodded, smiling weakly. At least that was something, though it did not make the pain any less. Lowering her head in a brief prayer, she thanked V’eru and excused herself, walking down the ramp into the main chamber. A man was standing there, bright white in gleaming armor, certainly a Vindicator. It took Vajarra a moment to recognize him, for it had been a great deal of time since they had spoken — and he looked much different here than he had in the dirty streets of Stormwind.

“Anchorite,” he said, lowering his head in a polite bow.

He was the one who was helping her sister, and Vajarra had to admit that thus far, he seemed to be having the most luck of her long string of superiors. Still, Vajarra was uncertain why he would be coming to her. They had spoken in the past, but simply passing conversation, and certainly not recently. Suspicion tugged at the back of her mind, but she tried not to let it into her voice.

“What brings you to the temple, Vindicator?”

They walked along the bridge that led up to the rise, and paused at the terrace that overlooked the chamber below. The old vindicator stroked his tendrils thoughtfully. “Aside from prayer, of course. A matter of some importance, I believe.”

Vajarra could not mask the flash of anger in her expression. Had her sister driven a knife into her back again? “Oh?”

Kestaan laced his fingers. “Regarding your latest… project.”

So she had. Vajarra didn’t know what she had told him, but she’d done nothing wrong. So let him ask, she would answer truthfully. “Istahn?” she asked, watching his expression closely.

“You are too trusting, Vajarra.”

She was surprised, and a little offended, to hear a Vindicator say such things. Her gaze slimmed, and she turned back to him. “Do you not believe in redemption, Vindicator?”

He gave a quiet grunt. “Redemption and deception are two different things. Can you be certain which he was?”

“Can you, Vindicator? Did you ever speak to him?” She struggled to keep her voice even; to keep from shouting at him. Had he too, been bewitched by Vassanta’s silver tongue?

Kestaan did not appear to notice, however, continuing placidly. “He was of the Sunfury, Vajarra, did you know that?”

Vajarra could not have imagined that she would be defending a sin’dorei in such a manner, yet here she was. “So were the Scryers, yet A’dal welcomes them here. Velen trusts them.”

“The wisdom of the Prophet is great, yes. But, you must understand that not all blood elves are like the Scryers. Not all who walk within the safety of these walls walk it with pure intent.” He had gone back to watching the terrace below, no longer meeting her gaze. It was impossible to read his emotion in his expression.

“Whatever his past sins may have been,” Vajarra said evenly, “He was atoning for them now. He had come here to follow the path of the Light, and he was struck down as he took his first steps. Murdered.”

His brows raised at that, and Vajarra had to believe that he didn’t know of it until now. “Murdered, you say?”

“Vassanta ordered it,” she replied. “Whatever he may have done to her or anyone else, he didn’t deserve to die.”

Kestaan grunted, leaning against the handle of his large warhammer. “Retribution is one of the paths of the Light, Vajarra.”

“Yes,” she said, turning to face him again. “But so is forgiveness, Vindicator.”

He sighed quietly, and he sounded tired. “His death was… unexpected, I will admit. But you must not mourn him, Vajarra. For if he truly sought the Light, you know that he shall not know damnation, but the naaru’s embrace.”

Vajarra nodded, feeling her eyes sting a little. She knew it was true, and it was some small reassurance.

“Will you… speak to her?” She glanced over to Kestaan.

He nodded. “I will.” He stood there, in silence, for what seemed like a very long time. “At your earliest convenience, Anchorite, could I ask a favor of you?”

She drew her brows, puzzled. “I will do my best, what is it?”

“I would ask that you meet me in Telredor,” Kestaan said, swinging his warhammer back up onto his shoulder. “There is something there I wish to show you.”

Vajarra could not remember what was in Telredor. Mushrooms, of course. She had been there a few times since she’d returned to Draenor, but she didn’t much like the marsh. Why would he want to show her that? She nodded though, and he bowed low to her before he strode back toward the bridge.