[Story] Story a Week 10

[[ Prompt: Obsession ]]

Uldred removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. They ached, and the pages in front of him were swimming. Perhaps it was time to turn in for the night. Only a little oil was left in the lamp, and by its struggling light he could see that the hour was well past three. Sighing, he gathered the papers up into a stack on the desk and placed a book on top so they wouldn’t blow away if he opened the window later in the morning. He’d just have to continue then, once he’d slept and had something to eat. The most frustrating thing was that he knew he was close — he had to be — it was only a matter of untangling the complicated web of spells before him. If a spell could be cast, its reverse could also be cast. It was a fundamental principle of magic.

That boy is obsessed, he recalled his father saying, when he first got his hands on magical theory books. Uldred used to read them by a lamp very similar to this one, sitting before the grey window-panes streaked with rain, a warm blanket all around him. He remembered the awe and wonder those books brought to him, the eagerness to learn and experiment for himself. Maybe he had been, Uldred conceded, because he couldn’t go to proper lessons. The books were all he had then, and proved a valuable resource now. Though of course he’d graduated to much more advanced subjects than magical theory.

The Stormwind streets were empty and quiet at this hour, but Uldred knew things still moved there, out of sight. Rats and stray dogs, thieves and cut-purses stalked the shadows, hunting. In Shattrath, Uldred hadn’t had to worry about such things, at least as long as he stayed on the upper tiers, but Stormwind was a much different place. It had taken some time to get accustomed to a city again. His room was on an upper floor, so he could leave the window open for air most of the time, though a truly dedicated thief could get in — if he’d had anything worth stealing. Rumors of elves infused with demonic magic had brought him back here, but thus far he’d been able to learn very little about them. He’d not seen one himself, nor found any books on the subject. Even if he did find one in the flesh, Uldred rather doubted he’d be allowed to conduct the sort of experiments necessary to learn what he needed to know. As they were elves, he might have more luck in one of their cities, but it was more likely they were driven into hiding, as he and his fellow summoners had been. Walking about the city stinking of fel energy was not a wise plan. But he had to find one. All of his years of study had moved him forward, but not far enough. There was a piece of the puzzle still missing, only Uldred wasn’t exactly sure what shape it was, or what it looked like. At this point, he wasn’t entirely sure what the end result was even supposed to look like.

He changed into his sleeping robes, and blew out the lamp. Even if he was able to finish his work, what was it going to accomplish? Would he not be the same person he was now? Would he be hailed as a great scholar and recognized for his achievements? Likely not. Would it bring his homeland and his mother back? Certainly it wouldn’t. But he persisted because he had to, because he had seen it this far and had worked too long to stop now. And partly out of habit. Without his work, what else did he have? On another night, this question might have kept him awake. But Uldred was asleep nearly as soon as he pulled the blankets up over himself.

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[Story] Story a Week 32

[[ Prompt: A story about a curse ]]

A screech like metal on stone announced the drake’s arrival into the clearing. Uldred watched it descend anxiously, the great leathery wings folding up over its back. Its prey was alive — stunned, but still moving. He’d made that mistake the last time he sent it out; the drake had swallowed it whole like a snake. This time, he’d waited until after the drake had fed before trying again. They shouldn’t be disturbed here. Uldred had searched for days for the right place in the forest. He hadn’t seen any of the giant insects here, nor the stalking reptiles, and there were no paths or villages close by. And there were small trees to tether the subject to, just in case.

The drake stood over its prey, its burning eyes watching Uldred intensely. He rubbed the smooth scales of its forehead. “That will do nicely. Thank you.” The drake was so huge now, grown rapidly from feeding off the creatures in this very forest. It was hard to imagine him as the weak, scrawny whelp he had been, on the edge of death. He still couldn’t understand how a creature that appeared to be undead could grow and thrive, either — but that was research for another time. Uldred’s subject was finally here.

Book knowledge and practical knowledge can be much different, and curses in particular were something that must be studied first-hand. But Uldred had little luck cursing small animals — often, they didn’t work as expected, and of course he could not ask the subject to describe what it felt. An aware subject, capable of speech, was required. Certainly there were dozens of people that Uldred would have liked to practice on, but most of them still lived back in Stormwind. Someone would surely notice if something happened to them, and he didn’t have a suitable place to work, either. For all its quirks, Shattrath was much better. Especially out here in the woods, away from the guards and the prying naaru. Uldred still wasn’t sure if they could know everything that happened in the city, but it was better not to risk it.

Seeing the bird people in the market had given Uldred the idea. He knew they had small settlements all around the walls of Shattrath. They were capable of speech, though rough, and no one would blink if one of them were to go missing. He wouldn’t even have to capture it himself and worry about being seen or attacked, the drake was large enough to carry one off — they were much lighter than they looked. The one that the drake had brought looked thin, too, or perhaps that was an illusion caused by the disarray of its feathers. It was alive, but the trip in the drake’s mouth hadn’t been easy. It stirred and, seeing the drake again, moved to get up. Its broad snakelike head struck and seized the bird again in its teeth. “Hey! Easy now,” Uldred said, frowning. He didn’t want to have to find yet another one. Quickly, he picked up the rope that he had left in the middle of the group of trees, and bound the bird’s hands with it. He’d had to research that too, and Uldred still wasn’t sure he’d got the knots properly, so he tied extra, just in case. The bird’s claws and beak looked sharp enough that it could probably cut through the rope, given enough time. So Uldred had to work quickly. The drake snapped its jaw and tossed its head before lifting off again, probably to find something else to eat.

The bird person’s small black eyes fixed on Uldred with a harsh glare. “Why,” it hissed, the feathers around its head rising. “Let go!”

Uldred didn’t answer, picking up his small notebook. Which one should he start with? There were so many, it was difficult to choose. Fireos? No, that would be too dangerous with trees around. Petrifesco? Maybe, but the subject would be unable to speak. Horribilius? Too loud, would surely attract attention. Arachiteus? Uldred scratched his chin thoughtfully. Hopefully it would attract only normal-sized spiders, and not the immense ones that lived nearby. It was worth a try. Carefully, Uldred recited the spell, sure to get every syllable correct. All magic was dangerous if done improperly, but especially curses.  He held his breath, watching.

Nothing happened.

Frowning, Uldred read over the spell again. He was sure to speak clearly, and in a firm tone. That was important for spells involving demons, it couldn’t hurt here either.

Still nothing. The bird’s eyes flashed, as if it was laughing. As if it knew.

Flustered, Uldred tried the spell on the next page. Then the next. None of them would take. Did the bird have some kind of magical protection? Or — the thought came to him with sudden clarity. Was the bird already cursed? It seemed fine, in fact it seemed to be gloating in Uldred’s frustration. Uldred snapped the notebook closed and stuffed it into his pack. All that research, wasted. He would have to find another subject, but he didn’t know where. He called for the drake, Naxitarius. This one would have to be taken care of.

[Story] Thorns – The Meeting

[[ I am writing this in the car place, hope it’s not too disjointed! ]]

Professor Dawnshard pulled back the flap of the research tent, startling Liara. She was deep in her notes, recording the symbols found on the demon statue’s base. They were similar to the picture words used elsewhere in Uldum, but different enough that she could not decipher them. She copied them meticulously, that she might look in the books back in Shattrath or Silvermoon to compare them there. Surely she could find more information there.

“There’s a boy to see you,” he said. The Professor looked shaken, a look that Liara had rarely seen on him before, and it concerned her.

A boy? Liara drew her brows, puzzled. Was it a letter? A package? She did not expect any, and visitors to the digsite were exceptionally rare. The last one had actually come across them by accident, a traveling merchant who had attempted to take a shorter route through the vast desert. Gathering herself, Liara lay down her quill and adjusted her scarf before stepping out into the searing sun to meet her guest.

He wasn’t exactly a boy; he had a beard. But she could see why the Professor had called him that, he looked impossibly young and innocent. He stood out plainly as an outsider here, his complexion looked as if he had not been out in the sun in months. And he was dressed all in black, with long pants and sleeves, and a heavy woolen cloak. Liara couldn’t imagine how hot he must be. Oh, and he was a human. There were some here, but not many, and those who lived in the desert all took a deep bronze color. The boy held his hat, turning it around anxiously in his hands. He seemed to be waiting for Liara to say something.

“Yes?” she asked. His eyes were a clear and deep blue, really quite nice. Liara felt a pang of jealousy that hers would never look like that again.

The boy glanced toward the Professor, as if gauging his reaction first. “I have information about your children,” he said. His voice bore an accent that Liara didn’t recognize.

It had been years since she had thought of them, wondered where they were or what had become of them. They were well into adulthood now, no doubt with lives of their own. They didn’t need a mother anymore, and it eased some of the guilt that she had carried for decades. But with those words it came over her like a wave, threatening to knock her off her feet. Liara swayed, unsteadily, but regained herself.

“Where– how–?” There were so many questions she had for this strange man.

The boy took out a bundle of papers from within his coat and handed them to Liara. “Those are their addresses.” She glanced at it briefly. Both lived in the Ghostlands, which made no sense. Were they actually dead, was this some cruel prank? But he spoke again before she could ask another question. “They hired me to find you.”

Liara’s breath caught in her throat. What else had they dug up? They must have found out her shameful secrets — all of them. Did they want to confront her? She could not really blame them if that was the case. Liara had had decades to accept her choices and to move past them, but they had not. She didn’t know what she would say if they asked her why.

And the Professor heard all of this, too. She had never told him of her children, the circumstances of their birth nor their being given to the Matron. He had been silent, observing, his regular cool composure returned. He answered the question that she was about to ask. “You need to go to them,” he said. “The dig will still be here. I can handle it for a while.”

She frowned faintly. She didn’t want to stop in the middle of her work, nor — she admitted — did she want to leave the Professor alone out in the desert. He would most likely be fine, but unexpected things could happen. Still, she knew he was right. As much as the idea frightened her, she needed to meet with her son and daughter. She wondered what they looked like now, whether they looked like their father or not.

“But first –” said the Professor. “Won’t you stay for lunch?”

The strange pale boy smiled shyly. “I was hoping you would ask.”

[Story] Thorns – Tanaris

On the third night, the hippogryph landed on a high, desolate cliff. Behind them stretched the Thousand Needles, a vast canyon carved out of striped red rock. Uldred had read that it was flooded several years ago, that once the entire thing was dry and lifeless. Looking at it now, it was difficult to believe. Towns clung to the edges and high points, he could not see them well but he could see the tents and small buildings, even some of the smoke from the fires. They were Tauren, most likely, or perhaps even centaurs. He remembered reading about those, too. There had been a drawing in the book, but it seemed too outlandish to even consider. How would one run? What did they eat? Did the young run like horses, or were they carried like babies? His tutor hadn’t known any of the answers to those questions, and was irritated when Uldred had asked. Maybe on the return trip, he could get close enough to get a better look at one. But they were supposed to be dangerous, he remembered reading that too.

In the opposite direction, to the south, stretched a desert. The late afternoon sunlight reflected strongly off the bright sand, making Uldred squint. It was almost as if he could feel the heat of it already. Consulting his rough map, he knew that was Tanaris, which meant they would reach Uldum sometime tomorrow, just as the hippogryph master had promised. Maybe everything would go according to plan. That is, if the woman would even agree to speak to him. It was a neutral place, less dangerous than approaching her in Silvermoon. If she went there before they could talk, it would be impossible to reach her. Uldred brought out the statue from his pack, carefully unwrapping it from the cloth. He set it upon a flat rock and asked to see through it. To his great relief, the woman was still there in Uldum. She was sitting across from an older elf; Uldred could tell because of the lines in his face and the silver at his temples. Uldred hoped the man wouldn’t be there when he arrived to speak to her, he might get the wrong idea, or simply tell him to go away entirely. He had already been practicing what he might say when he finally found the woman, but he still had to make sure he said it the right way.

Your children are looking for you,” was a good one, he thought. It was straight to the point and would get her attention. Or, “I have information about your children”, though Uldred thought that sounded more dire, as if there was an emergency. He didn’t want to frighten her, just explain the situation. He let the demon statue stay out, its tiny gem eyes looking forward out over the deserts of Tanaris.

The hippogryph had already settled itself down, its legs folded in underneath itself and its head curved over its back. Uldred had grown a wary appreciation for the animal in their time together; he no longer believed it would abandon him or drop him from the air. He’d even begun to understand its little quirks — for example he knew that it was only napping right now. It would lay fully on its side when it was ready to sleep for the night. There were still some provisions left, these Uldred left near the animal’s forelegs for when it woke up, but most likely it would seek fresh prey, as it had the other nights. He couldn’t blame it at all, he’d much prefer a fresh hot meal to the dry, tasteless rations. Maybe there would be some in Uldum. He had no idea what sort of food they ate there. Maybe the woman would even invite him to stay and eat with her. He was curious about her research. Through the statue’s eyes, he’d seen a glimpse of her tent with all of its books, papers and diagrams. History was a subject that could be very useful to his own research, as well. It had been far too long since he’d been able to discuss his work. It was illegal in Dalaran, and he hadn’t seen the mages in Shattrath in a very long time. Even his succubus seemed bored with listening to it of late. Yes, dinner would be very nice. He would have to comb his hair before they left in the morning.

[Story] Thorns – The Journey Continued

On the second day of his journey, Uldred found himself missing the cool green forest immediately. The landscape below was parched and withered, the grasses yellowed and dry, and the sun beat mercilessly upon his back. His hat helped, a little, but not nearly enough. There was also the danger of being spotted by the wyvern riders; he’d seen them circling in the distance and a few times he was certain they’d chase him. But maybe even they decided the day was too hot for such things. Or, Uldred assured himself, the hippogryph had made this flight enough times to know where the wyvern patrols ended. Was a bird that intelligent? He had his doubts. Herds of animals roamed the grasslands below, and from time to time the hippogryph took notice of them, his head cocking at an abrupt angle. At least it wouldn’t go hungry tonight. Would it bring any meat back to the camp? Ordinarily, the idea of eating a bird’s half-eaten meal remains would horrify him, but Uldred was hungry enough to consider it by now. The rations he’d brought kept him alive, but they tasted terrible and weren’t filling at all. Some fresh meat might — no, he shook he head to clear it. That wouldn’t be a good idea at all. He thought about how hot it was now, and how it would surely be worse in Uldum. He wasn’t looking forward to that at all.

The hippogryph chose to roost in some rocky hills that overlooked the plains. They were high enough to be safe from the animals prowling below, but Uldred still worried about being spotted by the wyverns. He unpacked his things underneath a sparse tree, both for its meager shade and for some cover — it was better than nothing at all. As he’d expected, the hippogryph took off toward the grazing herds immediately after, going off to hunt. What if it didn’t return? At least there was an outpost here, Uldred had seen it as they had flown over. It didn’t look like much, a few towers and a barracks, but at least there were people, and not trolls or orcs. If he had to, he could seek help there. This particular camp had been used before, there was a fire circle already arranged out of stones, and their charred edges showed their use. Uldred noticed a small trail that wound its way a bit further up the hillside, and curiosity demanded that he follow it. Who had stayed here, and why? Where were they going? Uldred didn’t see any hint or evidence of the previous visitors. There was something, though, at the highest point in the trail. Uldred knelt and tugged away the dead vegetation to be sure what he was looking at. It was a grave stone, but the markings had been long faded by the rain and wind. He stared at it a long time, uncertainly. Had someone died in this place, making this same trip? And how? Who had buried them, and had they done it alone? Had they all gathered around to say their last goodbyes?

In spite of himself, Uldred was drawn back to that dark, rainy afternoon in Gilneas, staring at his mother’s grave marker. He had, thankfully, never had to see the body itself. Looking at the grave was bad enough, this physical thing that proved her absence. Uldred remembered feeling thankful for the rain, that it would hide the tears upon his cheeks. He didn’t want to sniffle, either, so he stood very still so that it wouldn’t drip down his nose but it did anyway. His father didn’t sniffle, or cry, at least that Uldred could see. He stared at the stone but not really at it, he was looking somewhere far away. Uldred envied that he didn’t have to cry. He wished he could be more like him, maybe it would have made things easier. Especially after Mother was gone.

Uldred took out a paper from his notebook, and sat beside the lonely grave. Carefully, he trimmed it into a square and then with great care, folded it over and over in the way he’d once learned from another boy at school. He didn’t have any ink, but he supposed a white rose would have to do. He adjusted the last few paper petals, and placed the folded flower atop the gravestone.

[Story] Thorns – The Journey

Uldred consulted the map again, his hands still trembling from holding tight to the hippogryph’s reins for so many hours. It was impossible to tell whether they were in the correct spot or not, the first X marked on the elf’s hastily-drawn map. Right or night, the animal had tucked its wings and began a swift descent as they neared the area, a flat hilltop clearing. He didn’t know Kalimdor well, but he had spent a year or so in Ashenvale, and he believed they were still there. Looking down at the rapidly passing trees had made him feel a little too queasy, so he’d closed his eyes much of the way. Uldred sighed, folding the map again. It was more or less useless. Thankfully, the hippogryph seemed to know which way to go — if not, Uldred would find himself lost somewhere in the wilds of Kalimdor.

He took out the first little bundle of food that he’d bought in the Darnassus market; a fish and some chunks of red meat. He tossed them onto the grass near the hippogryph, but it was busy scratching at the earth with its strong front claws. Uldred could only guess that it was making a nest to rest in. He himself had no tent or sleeping roll; mostly because he’d not thought to bring anything like that. Fortunately it was warm, and the sky clear, so it would probably be fine. He did worry about animals, though he supposed the hippogryph might defend him from them. Or if not, it would at least defend itself, and the commotion should scare whatever animals away. Their little camp was at the top of a hill, and there were no paths down that Uldred could see. He frowned. There would be no way to get water for the night, either. He could feel the day’s dirt and sweat clinging to him. He had a small amount of wine left, about a quarter of the bottle, but of course he couldn’t bathe in that. He supposed the hippogryph could just fly away if it needed to drink, but what if it never came back? Uldred would be stuck on this little hill forever. Surely that wouldn’t happen, he assured himself, surely they were better trained than that. Otherwise no one would ever rent them. Unless it was a deliberate ploy to rid Darnassus of Gilneans. Uldred was still keenly aware of his accent when he spoke, what others assumed when they heard it. The elves claimed to want to help, but Uldred could see the distaste written in their expressions all the same.

Uldred arranged his pack and cloak into a small cushion, and sat upon it, taking out his own dinner provisions. There was bread and some dried meat, not very filling and less appetizing. He missed the restaurants in Dalaran already. They all had fine silver and china, and any sort of food you could wish for — if they didn’t have it on the menu, they could probably conjure it. Uldred could almost see himself moving there permanently — if it were not for the effect it would have on his own research. As nice as the city was, its prohibitions were frustrating at times, and Uldred hadn’t made any real breakthroughs since he’d been there. He had made some valuable notes from the library, but any experiments with them would have to wait until he was away from the Kirin Tor’s eyes. He took out the demon statue, carefully wrapped in cloth. He scratched a simple circle into the dirt, adding the required runes for making contact with the wrathguard.

“Arixatik,” said Uldred, and the statue’s eyes glinted briefly. Sometimes demons could take their time about answering his calls.

You called, master?

“Do you still see the elf?”

The reply came quickly, and assuredly. Yes. She dines with the other elf.

Uldred nodded, relieved. “Good, good. That’s all. See that you don’t lose her.”

The wrathguard didn’t answer, the statue’s eyes going dark once more. Uldred was only a few days away from his reward, he had to be certain it didn’t slip away at the last moment. He would have to give Arixatik something for his help, though he wasn’t certain just what yet. The succubi were easy to please, and imps served readily out of fear. But not the larger demons, they always wanted something, and their demands could be high. But he could worry about that once he’d found the elf.

[Story] Thorns – Darnassus

A summer thunderstorm darkened the skies as the ship approached Teldrassil. A few stray drops pattered the wood of the ship’s deck, but the rain held — for the time being. Uldred was brought back immediately to the day that he’d first arrived here. How many years had it been? He wasn’t sure, but he remembered the feeling of it as if it were yesterday, as if he were living it again right this moment. Which, in a way, he was. It had been winter then, the dark sea lashing at the ship’s flanks, at this very same pier at the great tree’s base. Kor had been with him then, silent and doubtful, as lost as he was. They were still a team then, Kor had not yet betrayed him and his family’s legacy. Uldred had no hint of it, no warning signs. He remembered the smell of the leaves and the living wood, the strange appearance of the elves and their shining blades.

It was mid-day now, and most of the elves slept within their homes. They would not emerge until evening, when all of the shops would open and people walked along the shaded paths. The guards stood watch, even at this hour. Uldred thought they eyed him with suspicion still, even after all these years. Perhaps they were wise to do so. Perhaps the man who had told Uldred about that forbidden magic had been caught, and disposed of. Uldred did not know what elves did to criminals, and he was afraid to ask. The tree still stood though, where the Gilneans refugees had taken shelter when they first arrived on Kalimdor’s shores. Nature had reclaimed it, moss and small flowers growing over the ground, vines twining over the bark. Only the small stone pedestals in the center served as any reminder that the Gilneans had once been there. It seemed almost serene, which struck Uldred as ironic given his countrymen’s fates. He himself had been lucky. His experiments had not yet produced a full cure, but they served to keep his “attacks” – as he called them – under control. Others were not possessed of such willpower, or they actually preferred it. Others, like Kor.

The hippogryph master was not difficult to find. He had long green hair that reached to his waist, though it was tied back. He hauled several buckets of water over to the animals, who dipped their beaks in and sipped with a daintiness Uldred didn’t expect. The elf noticed Uldred, and his brow raised slightly.

“I need a hippogryph,” Uldred said. Of course he did, that’s why he had walked to the hippogryph master. “To Uldum.”

The elf looked surprised. He said it was a very long trip, and the hippogryph might need to stop and rest. That was fine, Uldred said. It would cost a lot of coins, said the elf. That was fine too. Uldred had expected that it would, and brought plenty with him. Of course they weren’t even his coins, they were coins that the blood elf had sent him. So the cost didn’t bother Uldred one bit. He even gave the elf a few extra, for good measure. The elf went to brush and saddle the hippogryph while he waited. He also brought a paper, onto which he’d scribbled a rough map. He pointed out the best resting places, where they could stay overnight. It was simply too far to travel in one day. The elf told Uldred that he must bring food along for the hippogryph to eat, and that could be bought in the market. He made him show it before he handed over the reins.

Uldred had never liked riding, and a hippogryph seemed to combine the worst attributes of both horse and bird. He had hopes of one day riding on his dragon, though — he had grown over the years and would soon be able to support the weight of a rider. If he agreed to it, of course. Uldred held tight to the reins and willed himself to learn this, so that he would make fewer mistakes with Naxitarius. To its credit, the hippogryph hardly seemed to notice his presence at all. It tossed its head and fluffed its feathers, then spread its enormous wings in a stretch. The elf gave him a brief wave, and the hippogryph took to the sky with a squawk.