[Story] One More Chance XXXIV

In the darkness, their voices came to her — quiet at first, but then nearby, as if they were whispering in her ear. She could not see them, but she knew their voices just the same: her brave father and her gentle mother, and Aziron and Vassanta. You left us, they said, and they came near enough to touch her, their hands pale and cold. Vajarra trembled, afraid and ashamed, their cold white eyes upon her. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, turning away so they would not see her tears. But behind her stood another figure, a thin smile etched on the slender elf’s sharp features. She started to speak, but he raised a finger to her lips, still smiling that sly smile. Forget about them, Priestess, he said. His raised his hand, the gloved thin fingers brushing over her cheek, and she flinched away, startled.

Vajarra blinked at the wan light of dawn, and it took her a moment to remember where she was. The cave on the cliffside, where she had hidden from the avalanche. Her family hadn’t been here — she had been dreaming. It seemed so real, and she was sure that she could still hear Istahn’s voice. She shrugged out of the blankets, pulling her cloak around her shoulders.

Priestess?

Was she dreaming still? She could smell the fresh cold scent of the snow, hear the faint warbles of songbirds in the dark green trees, but how could she be certain? Vajarra paused at the mouth of the cavern, letting her fingers rest on the damp, wet stone.

“Priestess?”

He stood atop the stone ledge, surrounded by the brilliant brightness of the morning sunlight on the new snow, and Vajarra had to squint to see him. She expected that he might be weak or fragile from his ordeal, but he seemed rather the opposite; more bold, more filled with life than he had ever been in Shattrath. But perhaps that was because he felt uncomfortable there, that the wilds were more where he belonged. Vajarra couldn’t find any words, so she smiled up at him, shyly.

Though doubt gnawed at the back of her mind, Vajarra pushed it away. He extended a gloved hand to her, nodding toward the summit. “I have so many things to show you, Priestess.”

He led her up a narrow path, one that Vajarra had not seen before, and she had to concentrate to keep from slipping — though she knew he would catch her if she fell. Then why did doubt still linger? Vassanta and Malcos were foolish, and not exactly paragons of good judgment themselves, who were they to tell her what to do? She raised her gaze to look at him again, striding confidently along the trail, pausing to listen now and then, sword hand on his hilt. Maybe he looked different, but that didn’t matter, did it?

His sword! The realization made Vajarra startle. Vassanta said his hand had been cut off, back in the woods. Was she mistaken, or was there some sort of magic that had caused it to become whole again? Vajarra admittedly knew little of such magic, but just the idea of it made her feel faintly queasy. From behind him, nothing looked amiss, but he was wearing heavy plated gloves, so it was impossible to tell for certain and she wasn’t about to ask. He glanced back to her, and she lowered her gaze hastily, feeling her ears warm. His eyes were startlingly and brilliantly blue, not the sickly green that she remembered. Had he shaken off the effects of the fel magics, then? Vajarra didn’t really understand the nature of the blood elves’ addiction, but it certainly seemed possible.

The pale morning sun crept over the craggy spine of the mountains, illuminating them with golden light. “It’s beautiful up here, isn’t it?” Vajarra asked, mostly to break the silence. He nodded briskly, almost impatiently, and with a single stride, closed the distance between them. Vajarra felt her heart catch in her throat.

“Look well, Priestess,” he whispered, leaning in close to her, his cold eyes gleaming. “Look what has become of me. This gift that I was given.” Vajarra tilted her head, puzzled. What gift did he mean? She remembered his first letter, and his promise of a gift then. Was he going to give it to her now? His lips were very nearly touching hers, and Vajarra felt herself tremble. “And at last… I am going to give it to you.”

The kiss did not really surprise her, but the eerie coolness of his lips did, and a shudder of fear ran through to her hooves as she realized, all too late, what stood in front of her. How could she have been so foolishly blind? He raised his hand to her cheek, just as he had in the dream, and she squeezed her eyes shut to keep herself from screaming. Then, as if bitten, he jerked it away quickly, roaring in pain and surprise.

Malcos! He must have found shelter during the avalanche after all, and tracked them here. Vajarra had never been so grateful to see him as she was now, and vowed to apologize to him — if she got the chance. He’d plunged one of his daggers into Istahn’s lower back, through one of the narrow gaps in his armor. He whirled on Malcos like a furious snake, drawing his sword with the hand he shouldn’t have. She had to help Malcos! Istahn paused long enough to glare icily back at her, and Vajarra felt a shadowy hand at her throat, cutting off her breath. She could only watch helplessly, falling to her knees as he advanced on Malcos.

They circled one another warily, Malcos held only his daggers, but he refused to back down. “Let her go,” he growled, his ears laid back.

“How brave of you,” Istahn sneered, the tip of his sword dipping to the ground as he touched it there, the ground seeming to shudder at its touch — just as Vajarra had. “Stupid, but brave.” The snow and earth churned as a rotting skeletal hand clawed its way to the surface, and Vajarra could only stare in breathless horror as the rest of the corpse drew itself out from its bed in the ground. Its dead, sightless eyes fixed on Malcos, and it shambled toward him with frightening speed.

He had been right, about everything, Vajarra thought as the last of her air escaped her lungs, but then all at once the hand was gone, and she breathed in great gasping breaths. “Come now, Priestess,” Istahn turned back to her, grabbing her arm to pull her to her hooves. “No more distractions.” She could hear Malcos growl in rage as the thing slashed and bit at him, clutching at him with its terrible bony claws.

Vajarra could not fight like Malcos, she wasn’t trained like Vassanta, what could she do to help? Desperately, she prayed for the naaru’s help, so far away in this cold and lightless place, she was not certain if they could hear her. Please help me, she pleaded silently, afraid that Istahn might hear. She heard something fall to the ground and she looked back to Malcos, but he stood there still, the remains of the ghoul still faintly twitching at his feet.

“I told you to let her go, you bastard,” Malcos snarled, staring grimly at Istahn.

To her surprise, he did — at least, he dropped her wrist and whirled to face Malcos again, his sword pointing at the night elf. “Very well,” Istahn hissed. “Come and get her.” A bolt of darkness leapt forth from his hand, seeming to clutch Malcos around the waist and dragging him over to Istahn, all in the space of a blink. Vajarra could only watch in horror as the sword plunged through Malcos, emerging out his back. The elf stumbled weakly and crumpled down to the snow.

She watched in numb shock as the blood crept over the snow. He killed him, she thought, as Istahn wiped the edge of his blade clean. And now he’s going to kill me too. She remembered what Malcos had said, about dying here, and now she had seen it for herself. She couldn’t let that happen, especially not to Malcos who had tried so hard to warn her. Vajarra asked again for the naaru’s help, as Istahn advanced on her, the blood still caught in the ridges of his blade.

As they had many times before, the naaru answered — but she felt it rather than heard it, a surge of light that enveloped her body entirely, reflecting off the bright snow. Istahn growled and slashed at her with his blade, but the aurora held strong, protecting her as her hands glowed brilliantly with holy fire. She did not feel sorry; not anymore, he wasn’t the same person she had known before. Or perhaps he was, and Vassanta had been right all along. At the last moment, he seemed to falter, and Vajarra touched her hands to him, searing with burning light. He shrieked in pain, recoiling from her as he grabbed blindly for his sword. She felt as if the heavens themselves had opened up and now brought judgment down his deceitful, unholy head. He staggered down the slope, half running and half falling, but she did not chase him. Vajarra went to Malcos’ side, kneeling in the red snow.

Still bathed in the naaru’s light, she laid her hand on the wound, willing it to close, at least enough that they could find help. Her other hand took his, holding it in hers until she felt warmth there once again.

[Story] One More Chance XXXIII

It was nearly time. Such a thing couldn’t be rushed, it had to be just the right moment, and now Istahn could afford the luxury of waiting. The avalanche, while not his work, had neatly handled the issue of the tenacious chaperone. He’d lost track of the scruffy kaldorei somewhere in the rush of snow, but he couldn’t say for certain where he was. Beneath the snow, he would cause no more trouble, but if he had found safety… Istahn perched atop the ledge that overhung the cave entrance, listening to the sounds of the night. Beneath the cover of darkness, the gristly, chewing sounds of the risen far below them reached his thin ears, and somewhere far off came the guttural roar of some beast. He could hear the steady rhythm of her breathing, no more than a murmur, but it was there. She must be cold, huddled alone in the darkness with nothing more than the spiders and bats to keep her company, and Istahn envied her that, a little. He wasn’t cold, in fact he felt very little at all since they’d found him in the Ghostlands. It was simply part of the price he had paid, but Istahn was certain that he had struck a good bargain. He shifted his position atop the rock, dislodging a stone. So much mana that he could almost taste it upon his tongue, maddeningly close.

His hand went to his pouch, seeking the little leather-bound book there, letting the worn binding fall open to its usual page. The slender, bony fingers traced along the small lines of print there — too dark now to read, but he knew the words. He no longer thought much about the stranger’s hand that had been grafted to him by his former masters; who it once belonged to, the odd feeling of detachment or revulsion when he looked at it. Another price, this one more steep, but it was still fair, Istahn would say. Your glory shines upon this land, through the night hours of this darkened place. A single candle flame amid the darkness, he had been drawn like a moth into her light. A light that soon would be transformed, as he was, into a terrifying force of destruction. How far she would fall, and how many she would drag with her — he dared not even imagine the havoc she would wreak at his command. She had strength, that was certain, but she must be shown how to wield it, and once dawn came, her training would begin.

[Story] One More Chance XXXII

Malcos didn’t bother to keep hidden after that, rather he rode a few lengths behind her on the trail, sullen and silent. Now and then he would try to start a conversation, but it inevitably turned to the same subject: What was she doing here? Vajarra thought that he must know, but he wanted to hear her say it aloud; instead, she would snap the ram’s reins and urge him into a lazy trot. And though she guessed that Malcos kept a watch at night — he told her of dangerous animals, creatures, and walking dead that roamed these lands — each morning she found a note, tucked neatly in her belongings. On the first morning, it was in Sada’s saddlepack, but sometimes it would be in her own pack, and once, unnervingly, beneath her sleeping roll. She kept them hidden from Malcos of course, tucked safely into the pocket in her cloak. They were brief, and to the point, but a few encouraging words. He signed them all the same way: I’ll see you soon.

She led them to a trail that wound its way up the craggy side of a mountain, the stark black rock frosted with snowdrifts, and finally Malcos spoke up again. He squinted up toward the crag, reining back his horse, who was puffing and snorting in the knee-deep snow. “Enough of this, Vajarra, we are going back.”

“You can go back if you like,” she said, not bothering to look back at him. “But I am not done here.”

Malcos urged his horse forward, pulling up beside her. “Yes, you are. Let’s go,” he growled, taking hold of Sada’s bridle.

“Stop it, Malcos! Why won’t you just go away?” She was tired of him following her around, tired of his dire warnings and tired of him telling her what to do.

“This isn’t a game, Vajarra. Do you know what can happen to you if you die here?” More dire warnings, but she thought she could see real fear beneath his grave expression. What could Malcos possibly be afraid of?

She shrugged, trying to tug Sada’s reins back, but he held them tightly. “Yes, if I die I’ll go and join the naaru,” she said shortly, glaring at him again.

“No,” Malcos answered flatly, and he gestured down to the fields far below them, where the walking dead clamored over one another, teeming over the ground. “If you die here, you’ll turn into one of those. A rotting husk, obeying the Lich King’s command.”

They were horrible to look at, but Vajarra had to see, if only to prove him wrong. There were so many, how could they be travelers like herself? But they were far away, and the decay had claimed many of them, and it made her shiver to look at them too long. “That’s not true,” she said at last, stepping back from the ledge. He was only trying to control her again, to scare her back to the safety of the temple.

“It is true, I assure you. And if you die, you won’t have any say in the matter. So let’s get out of here, now.” Malcos gave the ram’s bridle a tug, starting to turn him back down the steep trail.

“For the last time, Malcos, stop butting in and –” Vajarra felt the mountain shudder beneath her, and blinked accusingly at Malcos. He cocked a puzzled look back at her, ready to voice his protest, when the mountain rushed down upon them. Above them, the sheer cliff face had shivered loose of its coating of snow, and it now fell over them like a wave, dragging the rocks and trees with it. Vajarra sat, frozen in awe, as the avalanche bore down upon them. Fortunately, Sada’s instincts were swift, and the grey ram bolted into a lurching gallop, mindless of either his bridle, or his rider. Vajarra thought she heard Malcos shouting something, but the sound was buried by the rushing snow. She clung fervently to the ram’s back as it leapt over the crags, squinting her eyes shut tightly whenever she felt his hooves scrabbling dangerously on the stones. All around them, the mountainside was in motion, rushing downward at a dizzying speed. Sada made a wild, desperate leap, and Vajarra felt the snow tugging at his hooves, the worn leather of his saddle’s cinch as it gave way and snapped. She landed with an unhappy thump on the ground, watching helplessly as the ram went on, the saddle still hanging off his side. Vajarra stood, shivering, and spotted a large tree a little way down the slope. Maybe she could hide there until the snow settled. Above her, the cliffside rumbled ominously again, and she hurried through the snow, panting little clouds of breath. The snow was deep and her little hooves were not meant to run across it, and her ankles were freezing despite the warmers she had put on them. When she reached the tree, she put her arms around it, partly for balance but partly in gratitude. Here, at least, she might have an anchor should the snow start to move again. She slumped down against the trunk, in the sweet-smelling ground underneath the boughs, and re-tied the straps of her pack. All of her belongings still seemed to be there, and she patted the inside of her cloak cautiously, but the letters were there, too.

But she could neither see nor hear the night elf, and she couldn’t be exactly sure where they were standing before, so she let her eyes roam across the entire cliffside until the brightness of the snow began to hurt. Vajarra was alarmed to discover that her first feeling was relief, rather than worry. He was fine, she assured herself, he was trained in combat and he knew what to do in times like these. She couldn’t stay here, or he would find her, though. Vajarra rubbed her hooves to try to warm them, and she crept out from behind the tree, searching for another place to take cover. She spotted it further down the slope, a large dark outcropping of rock. At the very least, she could take cover there overnight, for the afternoon sky was already turning grey, and night would be upon her soon. Maybe this night, she could stay awake and finally see Istahn at last.

The rock outcropping hid the entrance to a cavern that opened deep into the heart of the mountain, its cool still breath making Vajarra shiver. Still, it was shelter and would be warmer than the cliffside, especially if she could manage to make a fire. The cave floor was damp, but there were some raised places that would be dry enough for her to spread out her bedroll. She could hear things, far away in the darkness, dripping water or the skitter of small creatures, and a low howling that sounded very much like a voice. Vajarra spread out her bedroll, untying her blanket and wrapping herself in it as she sat watching the cave entrance, as the patch of sky outside turned grey, then purple, and finally to the deep starless blue of night. The absolute darkness made the cave’s sounds take on an eerie tone, and she was certain that she could hear a voice, far away, calling her name.

[Story] One More Chance XXXI

North, that was the only clue Vajarra had, and the only direction to go from this little town on the bay. Vajarra looked up at the thick wooden beams of the ceiling, the covers pulled up to her chin. She had hardly slept last night, her mind too full of questions. She’d lain here as the embers in the fireplace slowly flickered out and died, and the pale grey light of dawn came in through the windows. If she left quietly, certainly Malcos wouldn’t notice — if he was still here at all.

Vajarra kicked the covers back, shivering as her hooves met the cold floor. She would just have to get dressed quickly, there was no time to waste if she meant to get out onto the road before anyone else woke. Something caught her attention though, a stark white in the sullen room. It was an envelope, tied with a silk ribbon. Vajarra stared at it for several seconds, trying to remember how it had got there. Her letter was tucked neatly into the pocket of her cloak, and it had been battered and crimped from travel; this paper was still fresh and crisp. Besides, that letter no longer had its ribbon. So it must have been left here, but when? She looked to the heavy wooden door, and back to the table. Had someone come in during the night? She didn’t think she had slept, but she must have or she would have heard the door creak open, the footsteps on the floorboards. Was he still here? She cocked her head, listening closely, but she could hear nothing but the far-away cries of birds somewhere across the water, and the jangling of pots from the kitchen downstairs. Her hands trembling, she picked the paper up and pulled the ribbon loose. It was his handwriting, of course it was. He was close by, and he would meet her soon. She just had to get away from that nosy night elf.

She hastily pulled on her heavy woolen dress and heel warmers, and draped her cloak over her shoulders. Carefully, she nudged the door open and peered out into the quiet hallway. Vajarra wasn’t entirely surprised to see Malcos there, his chair set just outside the door. It looked as if he’d been dozing, but his ears flicked and he opened his eyes to look calmly at her. That certainly complicated things.

“Leaving already?”

Vajarra huffed past him, taking care not to step too firmly on the boards; she’d learned that humans were annoyed by the sound of hoofsteps indoors. “Go away, Malcos,” she hissed back at him. “I don’t need your help.”

Malcos said nothing, only watching her with that look halfway between smug and annoyed, his ears pressed back. Well, at least he seemed to be listening for now. Downstairs, Vajarra purchased some cheese and some dry crusty bread and tucked them into her pack. She had no idea how long she would be traveling or where she would be going, but at least she would have food for a day or two. Though the sun was up, frost still clung to the grass of the courtyard, and for the first time Vajarra wished she had proper boots instead of hooves, no matter how silly they might look.

Sada, her ram, lowed in greeting to her at the stables. She had decided against bringing the talbuk stag, worried that he would not do well in the cold. His pelt was thin and fine, and he had been born on the plains of Nagrand, a place where the sun shone so brightly that it was difficult to even remember it here. So instead she had brought the shaggy grey ram, who at least was accustomed to walking on ice and snow, and even if he was a little stubborn, that could be an asset should any monsters attack them on the way. Vajarra untied the rope and led him out into the courtyard, climbing up onto the heavy saddle. Glancing toward the inn, she saw Malcos standing there, leisurely leaning against the doorframe as he watched her. Did he intend to follow her? She narrowed her eyes, urging the ram into a trot and then his rocky little gallop; she’d put as much distance between them as she could.

As she had guessed, there was only one main road out of the little town, and it led north. It was wide and looked well-traveled, the dark green trees with their needled boughs standing guard on either side. Here the land seemed to gain a bit more color, though what she thought to be grass at first was really a low-growing sort of brush, in greens and reds and golds. Vajarra wished she knew a bit more about plants and animals so she could know what they were; maybe when she returned home she could look them up. The road wound north, around the hills and steep canyons, and Vajarra stopped to look behind her every so often. Sometimes, she thought she saw a figure there, far back on the road, but others she convinced herself it was only her imagination.

By late morning, the sun had risen fully, but it did little to chase away the chill in the air. Fortunately, Vajarra could see the outline of towers not far in the distance. She’d ridden past some villages, the broad beams of their buildings decorated with ferocious dragon heads carved out of wood. The innkeeper had warned her to stay far away from these, and to look for the stone keep. Still, she couldn’t help but feel curious about her surroundings, just as she had when she’d stepped off the boat from Azuremyst isle. Herds of shaggy creatures moved over the ground, eating as they went, and here in the shadow of the keep they seemed especially bold. They reminded her of the clefthoofs in Nagrand, great dark brown creatures covered with thick shaggy hair, but these animals had enormous antlers that rose absurdly from their heads. Both the males and females seemed to have them, and even the young, though theirs were smaller and had fewer tines. After a moment’s consideration, Vajarra slid down from the ram’s damp saddle and took out a small chunk of her bread.

The strange, springy plants felt squishy beneath her hooves as she neared the quietly grazing herd. Vajarra tore off a little piece of bread and tossed it toward one of the calves. Though it was a baby, it would have come nearly up to her chest if she stood beside it. Its mother snorted, raising her head to look at Vajarra with its wide, dark eyes, and lowed at her. The calf sniffed at the bread once and tossed its head, hurrying to catch up with its mother. “Hey!” Vajarra called after it, carefully avoiding the wet spots on the ground. “Don’t you want something to eat?” Vajarra was aware of the ground rumbling beneath her for only a second before she felt the bull slam into her, knocking her down. It was massive, a snorting hill of fur and antlers — antlers that he was swinging around for another strike at her. Vajarra squealed in alarm, trying to get back up onto her hooves; the other members of the herd had broken into their clumsy gallop as they fled, and she could feel the ground rumbling beneath their weight.

She saw a flash of dark, and in a moment recognized it as Malcos, his blades flashing as he leapt up onto the animal’s back. It bellowed in anger, trying to reach him, but the elf was safely on the beast’s shoulders, and a moment later drove his dagger into the back of its neck. It snorted, shuddered, and took two more steps before collapsing into a heap on the cold ground. Vajarra scrambled up, wide-eyed.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, brushing the twigs and dirt off of her dress.

Malcos snorted, sliding down off the animal’s back. “Making sure you don’t get yourself killed.”

“I wasn’t,” Vajarra said, narrowing her eyes at him. “And why are you following me? I told you to stop skulking around.”

The night elf wiped his daggers off, returning her glare. “You’re welcome.”