It was the last place in two worlds that she wanted to be, yet here she was. Vassanta had received the urgent plea for aid from the Gnome-king. It was a creature with whom she’d had no prior contact, but that somehow endeared their cause to her. Besides, it promised to be more interesting than the same old Shadowmoon patrol. From the crowd gathered in Ironforge, she wasn’t the only one who’d received such a letter, either. It felt strange to stand next to dwarves and humans again, speaking in the coarse Common tongue, but comforting in a way, too. It was easy to forget about the rest of the Alliance at her distant post, so wrapped up in their own people’s problems. They marched into the ruined city on the backs of the curious mechanical birds, a sea of whirring cogs and exhaust. Vassanta was certain she would fall off of hers, but it seemed to compensate for her height and weight as it moved along, its flashing steel flying over the snow. They really were fascinating, and she entertained the idea of buying one of her own once this business was concluded. The Gnome city — Gnomeregan, they called it — was like no place she’d ever been. Deep beneath the earth and long abandoned, it still thrummed with the pulses of energy that coursed through its tunnels like blood through veins. She had the brief fear that she would disappear somewhere within its electric trails and never be found again. But that wasn’t the case; the clanking army made its way to the core of the city, cutting down the tainted defenders at every corner. She’d never realized that the little Gnomes fought against their own corrupted friends and family, and it hardened her resolve further. Things did not go precisely as planned, however, and the march was turned back. Vassanta could see the disappointment in their faces, but the Gnome-King did his best to raise their spirits, promising another strike would follow shortly.
Vassanta had every intention of sticking around. She’d pledged to help, and more importantly, they were already hanging the Brewfest banners in the stone halls of Ironforge. Once the infectious music reached her ears, there was little point in trying to avoid it. Old habits don’t die easily, and she hadn’t tasted good Dwarven ale in far too long. Anyway, she’d insisted that Caelris find her there after he’d finished his business in Dalaran.
She’d been told it was a human city, but it looked like elf nonsense to Vassanta. Garishly painted buildings stacked on top of each other like layers of cake, narrow little passageways and cobblestones to trip over — Dalaran was no place for a Draenei, nor was it any place for a night elf, judging from Caelris’s scowling. It was in Northrend, a place that Vassanta had heard plenty about but never actually seen, and she didn’t see any on the trip, because they stepped through a mage’s portal from Stormwind. After finding nothing in their investigation of the ruins in Azshara, Caelris reluctantly suggested they try the libraries in Dalaran; they were likely the only place that still had any record of the blade.
Both of them were clearly out of place — Vassanta in her Sha’tar armor, caked demon’s blood still in its furrows, and the shoeless, scruffy druid — but they sought out the library all the same. Vassanta couldn’t be sure if it was commitment or staunch refusal to be wrong that spurred the elf on. Either way, he stopped scowling at the blood elves long enough to inquire about the ancient blade, only to be told that it would require further research, and he was welcome to stay and wait if he liked.
And then he would meet her in Ironforge to tell her what he’d found, and to sample some of this year’s ales. He hadn’t really agreed to that last part, but she’d pestered him until he reluctantly agreed. She could hardly blame him after what had happened last year — had it really been so long ago? Vassanta had to admit she had a fair amount of trepidation herself, and she felt as jumpy as a warpstalker whenever she saw a flash of blue hair in the crowd. She dropped a handful of silver coins on the counter of the souvenir stand, and picked up one of the green ceramic mugs from the display. No Ogre Brew this year, she resolved, wincing at the memory of /that/ hangover. Instead, she pulled the tap on the huge barrel of Thunderbrew beside the tent, relishing the aroma as it frothed into the mug.
Vajarra would say that she was courting trouble by coming back to Brewfest, and maybe she was right. Didn’t she deserve any horrible thing that happened to her, after all she’d done? Vassanta might have believed that once, but she wasn’t so sure now. But it wasn’t the time to dwell on that now, right now it was time to sample another of the kegs. She wanted to keep her head clear this time, so none of that serious stuff. That honey hops across the way sounded perfect, though.
It wasn’t the look of the thing that caught her notice, but the smell. Inside one of the makeshift pens was tied an enormous creature that looked to be the unholy hybrid of an elekk and a helboar. To say that it smelled bad would be polite, though Vassanta couldn’t be totally sure the odor wasn’t emanating from the creature’s handler, a black-bearded Dwarf who looked to have had quite a few already.
“Y’want te buy a shouvenir kodo?” he asked, when he noticed Vassanta looking the animal over. “Totally shafe to ride, guaranteed.”
Ride? The thing had spikes covering most of its back, though there was a wooden saddle providing a relatively poke-free riding experience. Wooden kegs were lashed to each side, and Vassanta had to wonder that she’d never thought of this innovation herself. Perhaps it was due to the beast’s shape; he was lower to the ground than an elekk and less apt to tip over. In fact, she didn’t think it was possible for the thing to tip over. And it was certainly… unique.
Vassanta was sure she was getting ripped off, but she found something in the beast endearing, and was soon guiding it in its ponderous way over to the keg of honey hops. Its enormous tail swept over a table on the way there, much in the way that a clumsy male Draenei might. She slid down from the saddle and looped the lead rope over a fence rail, though she wasn’t too worried about him wandering off. Even if he did, it wasn’t as if he’d be hard to find. Stooping down to open the tap, she noticed a pair of feet — shoeless feet — in the snow nearby.
“Caelris!” Her enthusiasm surprised even herself. Perhaps she hadn’t really expected him to show up after all.
The druid smiled thinly. “Enjoying… all of this?” He gestured around them, where a gnome was feeling the effects of the ogre brew not far away. “And what,” he asked, his eyes widening at the kodo, “are you doing with that?”
Vassanta grinned crookedly, holding up her mug. “Just a few, I promise. And it’s uh…” she scratched her tendrils thoughtfully. “A souvenir. I’m thinking of calling him ‘Piglet’, what do you think?”
“I think you’re going to persist in keeping it, regardless of what I say,” Caelris replied, shaking his head.
She had to laugh at that, because he was right. “Come on, let’s get you a pretzel,” she said, taking hold of his hand and pulling him toward the brightly-striped tent.
The druid seemed perplexed by the pretzel, but he ate it all the same. They settled on the wooden fence behind one of the tents, pretzels in hand. He wasn’t so keen to be noticed either, Vassanta noted wryly. To her surprise, he also fetched a mug for her — and one for himself as well. It was almost… nice, a stark change from just a year before. She couldn’t go back and change what had happened, but she could at least apologize for how she’d acted toward Caelris then. There wasn’t even any real reason for it, and that was the most embarassing part of all. It was simply what she’d always done, and she’d never paused to think about why. Too little, too late? Maybe, but her intent was genuine, and he seemed pleased by her apology, if more than a little surprised.
And wasn’t he the one who suggested they go inside to the inn — the very one they stayed in the year before, some naaru had to be laughing at that. And didn’t he buy another round of drinks without a whisper of urging from her? And didn’t he sit closer and propose an Exceptionally Bad Idea? He did, but Vassanta wasn’t completely sure it was a bad idea. Things seemed different now, because she was different. She couldn’t say exactly when it had happened, but somewhere the lumpy, molten chunk of metal became something new — the beginnings of a beautiful blade.
In the morning, Vassanta looked through the frost-etched glass of the window, where a delicate snow had begun to fall, draping the trees and buildings in lace. She thought there might be something like hope — not hope exactly, that was for starry-eyed optimists like Vajarra — but maybe hope’s tougher, more battle-weary sister.