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Prologue: Alayne’s Story

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itting in a cold, dank room near the Royal Quarter of the Undercity, a young elven woman sighed and pulled her cloak tighter around her. In one of the beds across the room, her companion, an elven priest, snored softly. Distracted by him, she rose, tucked the blanket a little tighter around him, and then returned to the desk. The candle’s soft light was the only illumination in the room. She idly twirled a quill in one hand while regarding the blank pages of a journal. “So much to say,” she sighed to herself. Her low contralto voice seemed loud in the stillness of the room. Glancing back over her shoulder guiltily, she prayed she had not woken her companion. Satisfied that he was still oblivious, she tugged a hand through her short honey-colored hair and shook her head to clear it. “I’ll just start at the beginning,” she whispered to herself, bending over the desk and dipping the quill in the inkpot, “and go from there.” With no further argument, she set the quill to the parchment and let the words flow. From the personal journal of Alayne Dawnrunner, a blood elf warlock The air of Eversong Woods is clear now. The sun shines down through the vibrant green leaves of living trees. I see no sign of the devastation wrought by the Scourge invasion, save for the Dead Scar that cuts through from Deatholme to the remnants of the Sunwell. Or, at least, that is what I tell myself as I look around my former homeland. But it is a lie. The signs are all around me -- even within me. How well I recall the preternatural silence that hung thick in the air as our armies advanced to meet the Scourge. Glancing around, I can see my father… “Are you well?” one of my fellow recruits asked, shaking me from my reverie. “I will be,” I replied with a sigh, “it’s just…” “I understand,” he said. “Take all the time you need.” With that, he departed, striding on ahead to the spire. I remained in the shadows cast by the trees, remembering the shades of my past. ~*~*~*~ “Miris, for the love of all that is holy, take her and leave!” my father urged my mother in a hushed whisper. From the other room, I listened in on their conversation. Papa had just returned from the war – a distasteful thing I hated because it took my father away from me – the night before. I was hoping to see him; to show him how far I’d advanced in my studies. I’d been eager to go to the sunlit groves outside the city gates and swim with them both watching on from the beaches of the Elrendar. When I tried to convince them to let us go for a picnic at breakfast, Papa smiled and sent me into the other room, saying he needed to talk about it with Mama. Since they were talking about my idea, I felt no guilt at eavesdropping on them. But why was Papa telling Mama to take me and leave? Did he not like us anymore? A sob escaped my throat before I could swallow it, betraying me to them. 1


“Come in here, Alayne,” Mama said, giving my father a tired look. “What’s the matter?” she asked me, her expression telling me that she knew the answer. “Why do you want us to go away, Papa?” I asked with a wail. “Don’t you want us to stay with you? I’ll be good if you’ll let me stay! I’m sorry!” the words came out in a torrent of tears and sobs. I felt strong hands lift me up from the ground and strong arms grasp me close in a hug as I cried my fear and misery out on my father’s chest. “There, there, Alayne,” he said softly in a soothing tone, “I’m not mad at you. I don’t want you to leave me; I want you to leave here for a little while to go someplace safer.” I lifted my head to look him in the eye. Still snuffling and hiccupping, I tried to understand this new twist about leaving home to go someplace safe. “Is home not safe?” I asked, confused. Then, seeing the flicker in his eyes, I knew. “The war’s coming here, isn’t it, Papa?” His eyes flickered with sadness and sighing, he nodded. “But, Ranger-General Sylvanas Windrunner will be calling out the entire army of Quel’Thalas,” he reassured me. “You know Lady Sylvanas, the great Alleria Windrunner’s sister, don’t you, Alayne?” “Lady Sylvanas will be fighting in the war?” I said, awed and afraid at the same time. “Those Urges will never beat Sylvanas! She’s the greatest fighter ever! I told her I wanted to be just like her when I grow up. She came and talked at my school last month,” I babbled. I’d always admired Sylvanas and Alleria. They were my heroes. “Exactly,” Papa said, smiling, after my praises trailed off. “But, Sylvanas needs everyone who’s not in the army to go somewhere else for a while. She doesn’t want there to be any chance that you or anyone else will get hurt. So, she asked us to tell you to leave when we got the chance to come back here and visit,” he said, shooting a meaningful glance at my mother. “Our friends, who have traveled to Menethil Harbor, said we could stay with them for a little while.” “Will you be coming too, Papa?” “Not right away, sweetheart. I have to stay here and help Sylvanas fight those nasty ‘Urges,’” he grinned, his eyes shining strangely. “Once we’re done, I’ll come to you and Mama and we’ll come back here. I promise. Now, why don’t you go out and play a little bit? This afternoon, I’ll take you and Mama on a picnic before you have to leave.” “Thanks, Papa!” I squealed with delight. After squeezing his neck in a happy hug, I squirmed out of his arms and raced outside to play in the yard. As I ran down the hallway, I glanced back over my shoulder. Papa stood in the doorway, a sad smile on his face and the shininess from his eyes – unshed tears – falling gently. Looking back, it seems as if he knew that this would be the last time he’d see home and family… ~*~*~*~ It was raining the day that word came of my father’s ultimate fate. Mama and I had suspected for years that he would not be joining us but hope shone eternal…until... News of the destruction of Quel’Thalas reached us weeks after we felt what must have been the destruction of the Sunwell. As a child, no older than seven, I did not understand the tearing sensation that seemed to rip through my soul. All I knew was that I hungered for something that I never realized was there until it was gone forever. It was as if the sun had been forever dimmed by thick clouds. The world around me grew darker, colder, and harsher as my hunger sharpened, seeking sustenance. My mother said that the cravings would pass; that we would find a way to control them. Her predictions have come true. Albeit in a horrifying manner… Yet more weeks passed, bringing us tales of the battle where Sylvanas had fallen to the traitorous prince Arthas, the leader of the Scourge. Had fallen and then been brought 2


back, enslaved in an unnatural unlife as a banshee. My mother paled when she heard this news and I screamed at the soldier that he was wrong; he was lying. Lady Sylvanas would never lose to the Scourge! For weeks afterwards, I wept and prayed that someone would come and tell us that the returning soldiers were wrong. I turned my eyes to the heavens and begged the stars to let Sylvanas herself come with my papa to Menethil and prove these humans wrong. But, if my prayers were heard, they went unanswered. Unanswered. For ten long years… As I said, it was raining the day that word came of my father’s ultimate fate. The rain came down with a steady staccato punctuated by the occasional burst of angry thunder. I felt faintly nauseated from a headache I’d been ignoring – an occupational hazard of cleaning tables in the town’s tavern. The day had begun badly and grown worse. First an argument – a long-running one – between Mama and I over my job. With Dalaran gone and little hope of returning to Quel’Thalas, I had decided to settle for life among humans and wished to earn enough money to travel further south to Stormwind. Mama wished for me to spend all of my time studying arcane magic in hopes that some un-named benefactor would take me under wing as soon as Quel’Thalas was restored. But, I digress. In short: Mother wished me to remain home or to do work deemed acceptable for a young woman of means – painting, sewing, or acting as a scribe. Working in a tavern was not even at the bottom of her list of acceptable trades. My mother and I were preparing supper in strained silence when we heard a knock at the door. Dusting the flour off her hands, and shooting me a look that promised punishment if this was yet another human suitor who’d tracked me down from work, Mama went to answer it. When she didn’t return immediately, I put down the potatoes I’d been cutting and walked into the main room to see who it was. A strange man – yet faintly familiar, in some way – stood in the doorway. He had a soldier’s bearing and his tabard proclaimed him a member of the Silvermoon Army. The stripes on his raised collar told his rank – captain. He glanced back at me, a look of surprised bafflement on his face. Before I could ask a question, his gaze returned to my mother and a look of unsurpassed sympathy shone across his stern soldier’s features. My mother stood rocking slightly, her mouth hung, eyes blank, and arms wrapped around her chest clutching her shoulders. She keened silently, chewing her thumb knuckle – just as I do when I’m upset – and stared at the floor. The captain lifted a hand, letting it hover a little bit over her shoulder. “Surely you must have guessed, Miris,” he whispered softly. Mama seemed oblivious to him. With a sigh, he turned to regard me again. “Little Alayne,” he said sadly. “You’ve grown up.” “Mama?” I asked, moving to stand in front of her and shaking her gently. Nothing I did broke her terrible trance. Casting a confused and frightened look at the captain, I began feeling the beginnings of panic rising within me. My hands shook and my mouth felt as dry as a desert. “Mama? What happened? Who is this man?” “He’s dead!” she screamed, still staring sightlessly into the distance. “He’s not coming for us!” With that, she collapsed to the floor, tearing at her face and sobbing. Terrified and despairing, I stared at the captain for answers. “I am so sorry,” he said, kneeling down to pick my mother up from the floor. Sobs shook her body and her high-pitched wails made my ears ring and head pound. Over the pounding of my head and the thundering of my heart, it was a miracle I heard the captain’s explanation at all. “Sergeant Tal’ar fell to the Scourge while defending the Sunwell. From the handful of survivors who managed to flee, he fought bravely to the end, taking many of the enemy with him. Prince Kael’thas has vowed to honor him – along with many others who gave their lives in defense of our homeland – when he returns.”

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I nodded, bewildered. One simple sentence had destroyed the dreams of a decade. The captain carried my mother to her room and then left. Through it all, I stood like a statue, numb, remembering that he had promised to return to us… ~*~*~*~ The next morning, the captain – Remar – returned to our house. Mama was still pale and shaken from the night before. Her cries had kept me awake throughout the night. Even the potion I’d gotten from the local alchemist, Master Armonis, had not helped her. Through the long watches of the stormy night, I had sat by her bedside, holding her hand and wishing I knew how to comfort her…or that she would comfort me… In the harsh light of day, she sat in the stuffed chair near the fire, shivering and staring blindly. “Is there anything I can do for either of you?” the captain asked. “Do you have any other family? Or friends I could contact? Would you like me to send word to anyone in Quel’Thalas? I travel there next before I journey west to…” “What is there left for us?” my mother spat, venom in her blank voice. “Our homeland,” he said. “Prince Kael’thas has sent orders for all loyal to the cause to do what they can to rebuild our homeland. The Scourge menace is largely gone – your husband’s sacrifice has not been in vain – and the few who remain are confined by our forces and unable to wreak further havoc. I know that you and Alayne have been waiting here for Tal’ar, Miris, but there’s no reason for you to remain here just because he’s gone. Your home is waiting for you. Your people need you and you need them.” “Home,” Mama mumbled. “We are home.” Captain Remar stood silent a moment longer and then bowed politely to my mother. Without further argument, he turned on his heel and left. I sat down on the floor next to her, taking her hands in my own. “Mama,” I said, pleading for her to hear me. “We’re not going back, Alayne,” she snapped, focusing her eyes and glaring at me. “We will stay here in Menethil.” Her eyes lost their focus again. “We told him we’d be here. He’ll come for us. Any day now…” ~*~*~*~ My mother died a few weeks later. She had never had much strength and what little will she had left vanished with confirmation of my father’s death. I rarely left her side during those long days, doing everything I could…but it was not enough… Her body lies sleeping beneath the ground in Menethil Harbor. She never lost faith that my father would return for us. I guess, in a way, he did. Her funeral was short and sparsely attended. We did not have many friends among our neighbors in Menethil – my mother had alienated the humans around us, never forgetting or forgiving them for the rumors of what General Garithos had done or for Arthas Menethil himself. The few mourners who came to the burial departed shortly after, leaving me alone in our home with my thoughts. Tears of grief and anger trickled down my cheeks. I had known, deep in my soul, that my father was dead these many years. My grief was for him. My mother had abandoned me here amongst these humans, these people who could never understand our losses. She had done her best to keep us separate, to build a wall around us I had no idea how to tear down, and then, when things grew difficult, she had run from life into death as fast as she could, leaving me here to deal with it all on my own. My anger was for her. Weeks passed and the seasons began to change once more. My anger faded into a mournful melancholy. I made desultory attempts to return to my studies of the arcane, to 4


fulfill my mother’s dream of becoming a mage. Still, the magic would not work for me as it once had when I was a child. The deep and seemingly infinite spring from which my soul had channeled its power had long been destroyed and, as yet, nothing had replaced it. Each time, before I began to try to rediscover what was missing, I prayed desperately to the Light to help me be the person I had been born to be. As ever, my prayers went unanswered. One evening, little over three months after my mother’s passing, a soft tapping on the door drew me from my studies. Wiping my bitter tears of frustration away, I hurried to the door to deal with whoever it was while praying it was not about Mother’s debts, taxes, or a request that I come work additional hours at the tavern. Pulling the door open, I was shocked at what I saw. I was accustomed to having to look down to humans, but for this visitor, I was forced to raise my gaze to meet his eyes. He was one of my own people, vaguely familiar though I did not recognize him. Clothed in blood-red robes with a small, ceremonial dagger belted at his waist, there was something fel or fey, though compelling, about this strange man. “Who are you, sir?” I asked, a tremor in my voice. My visitor blinked, the briefest flash of disappointment flickering across his face. Before I could ask him another question, he nodded to himself and smiled. “I am Jez’ral Cloudslasher. I have been travelling through these lands, gathering in recruits to return to Quel’Thalas. I understand that Captain Remar has been here before, bringing word of your father’s death. He reported to me that your mother needed further convincing,” the man said in a brisk, but not unkind tone. “My mother has been died shortly after Captain Remar left,” I said evenly, refusing to let myself show any weakness to this strange man. Jez’ral stood for a moment in silence. I thought I saw pity and sorrow in his eyes before he blinked and looked away for a moment. He sighed and drew his shoulders back as if bracing for a blow. “I am sorry to hear that. How did she die?” “The apothecary said the cause was grief. He said her mind couldn’t handle the news. She just…withdrew and stopped eating.” I replied calmly, forcing my emotions down though I wanted to fling my arms around this stranger and cry like a scared child. “Again, I am sorry for your loss,” he said softly. “I had come here hoping to convince you and your mother to return to Quel’Thalas. However, I would not want to intrude on your grief,” he said gently, turning to leave. “No. Please, come in,” I said, gesturing for him to enter. I took his ornate travelling cloak and hung it by the fire. Motioning for him to be seated, I quickly began gathering up my spell books, hastily arranging them out of sight. I did not want this stranger to request a performance only to see how lackluster my abilities had grown. “What are you studying?” he asked politely, taking one of the tomes from my hands before I could hide it away from him. “Ah, the arcane arts. You are a mage like your mother, then, I presume?” “I was once a promising apprentice,” I admitted reluctantly. “But then the Sunwell…,” I gestured helplessly. “I have tried but I can no longer cast spells that were simple to me as a child.” “I see. And, in all these years, you’ve found nothing to replace it?” “No, sir. I have not,” I said, bringing a pause of several moments to the conversation. “Have you considered returning to Quel’Thalas yourself? You could resume your studies there; perhaps lend your energies to helping us completely eradicate the remaining Scourge pests polluting our lands? Prince Kael’thas will remember those who serve our people well and faithfully. Of that, I can assure you.” “I…I had not given the matter much thought,” I replied. “I would like to but I am not highly skilled in magic or in warfare. My mother did teach me what she knew but…I have no 5


way to earn my keep unless there’s a tavern that needs another server or stables that need cleaning out.” “Room and board would be provided for you, of course,” he said quickly, “as well as access to further your education and proper supervision.” His nose wrinkled at the last and he added, “You are quite young to be left to fend for yourself among strange people. As for working in a tavern…” his eyes opened wide and he shook his head, just as horrified as my mother had been when I first took the job. “That is quite out of the question. I will take you on as my personal apprentice and oversee your training. In return, you will work with those I assign you to work with until I declare you competent. And, after that, I will help see that you are able to support yourself by one means or another. We must rebuild our nation,” he added, seeing that I was about to object, “and we must all see that our people are brought back to their homeland so that our glory can shine forth once again.” “I would like nothing better than to return with you; to help to cleanse our homeland and rebuild it in all its glory. But since the destruction of the Sunwell, my magic…” I protested. I did not want this man to think I was capable of more than I truly was. Jez’ral smiled at me. “We’ve found sources other than the Sunwell.” ~*~*~*~ And so, that was how I came to find myself on Sunstrider Isle. My past was dead and buried with my parents. Attired in the robes of a novice warlock, I shut my mind to the whisperings of the past and strode headlong into the future.

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Chapter One: The Journey Begins

A

layne sighed and glanced around herself uncomfortably. Her benefactor, Jez’ral, had been as good as his word. He had taken her in to his own home, provided her with food, clothing, and had begun instructing her in using demonic magic. She felt vaguely uneasy about drawing on the destructive forces of the Burning Legion. Once, during the few months she had spent training with Jez’ral, she had voiced these concerns. “It is true,” he admitted openly, “that fel energy corrupts. However, a disciplined mind can stave off that corruption and a strong will can resist its siren call. I believe you possess both. If you did not, I would not instruct you in this course. Also, while many denounce our use of such energies, they do not realize how such dark magics can be used to benefit our people. By learning to control demons, we learn how to overcome them. We warlocks fight the Legion’s fire with its own weapons.” Alayne herself had seen the truth of his words. Warlocks were tolerated among the magisters as long as they did not begin to show signs of corruption. Those few who had begun to succumb had been driven off or killed, depending on how deeply into the yawning chasm they had fallen. Now, able to wield such energies with a deftness that surprised and pleased her teachers, Alayne had been ordered to report to Sunstrider Isle and assist with the efforts there. Standing around her were others of her kind. Most were her own age though she had seen only a few of them in Silvermoon before this day. A young priest who stared at her when he thought she wasn’t looking and a hunter who seemed more interested in returning to the forest caught her attention. However, before she could approach either, the Magistrix who had requested their presence stepped forward. “The sooner you begin applying your educations, the better for us all,” Erona, the woman responsible for overseeing the reclamation of Sunstrider Isle, said without preamble. “There is little margin for error here so listen closely.” Alayne, along with the other recruits, grew silent and focused on the Magistrix. “The Burning Crystals - the green floating objects to the west of the Sunspire here,” Erona gestured, indicating the green crystals where swarms of mana wyrms hovered, feeding off their energies, “have long been used to power the isle's experimentations. The mana wyrms were their guardians, but the Scourge invasion of Quel'Thalas has driven them errant from our lack of magical control over them.” “What would you have us do about that?” one of the recruits asked. “Kill them all?” “There is little choice but to thin their numbers for reclamation,” Erona nodded, “Do this, then return to me.” The recruits dispersed. Several muttered angrily that this kind of work was hardly why they had returned to Quel’Thalas. Alayne kept silent. Jez’ral had pointed out to her that even menial tasks could have a significant impact on grander schemes. No work, no matter how trivial it seemed, was beneath her. Instead of grumbling, Alayne selected a mana wyrm 7


and began casting her spells. The creature darted towards her, letting loose blasts of raw arcane energy in response to her attack. It was not very powerful but the jolts of energy did make her blink. The young priest who had been staring at her all morning walked over to her and she felt a protective shield spring up around her. She smiled at him, grateful for the protective shielding, and immediately selected another target. The priest added his spells to her own and, between the two of them, they quickly culled out the mana wyrms on that platform. While the recruits worked to destroy the mana wyrms, Erona patrolled the area. Several lynxes who had, up until then, been wandering idly through the well-manicured gardens, grew wild. Alayne and the priest moved quickly, turning their attention on the lynxes. Others did the same, save for the hunter who approached one of them, knelt down, and began whispering to it. Alayne watched as the wild animal grew tame under the hunter’s careful attention. The man smiled and fished a piece of meat from his backpack. Feeding it to the lynx, he rose and pointed, sending the creature a silent command to attack its feral kindred. “Impressive,” Erona murmured. “Your effort has made something clear that, honestly, I wish were not true,” she sighed. “The unchecked power of the Burning Crystals has maligned a much larger swath of the isle's natural balance than I thought. We must now take on more unfortunate measures to reclaim control. These normally harmless lynxes are falling victim to the influence of the crystals. The wildest of them must be put down. Bring their collars to me as I may yet be able to fashion a magical restraint to turn some back from being uncontrolled.” Without further word, Erona strode up the hill and into the large building where other sin’dorei leaders had gathered to coordinate their efforts. “I guess that means we’re on our own,” the hunter muttered. “Not that many are going to stay for such work,” the priest snorted. Indeed, many of the other recruits took the opportunity of the Magistrix’s absence to leave to find more exciting work. “An honest day’s work never hurt anyone.” “That’s a good point,” Alayne agreed. “So, let’s be about it.” “Of course,” the priest grinned. “But first, your name.” “Alayne,” the young woman said. “I’m Zerith,” the priest replied. “Ber’lon,” the hunter added. “And this fellow is…Sunspot,” he pointed at the lynx he’d just tamed. Zerith opened his mouth to continue the conversation but Alayne cut him off. “Let’s take care of business first and then we’ll take a break.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne slumped down on the bench and wiped her sleeve across her forehead. Zerith sank down next to her and sighed in tired contentment. The handful of recruits who had remained all were fatigued from the morning’s labors. Still, the results were worth it. The green crystals hung unmolested over their platforms and the few lynxes left frolicked peacefully. The treants had had their numbers pruned as well. Enchanted brooms swept the marbled platforms clean. All told, the area of Sunstrider Isle looked much more composed than it had scant hours ago. “Here,” Ber’lon said, thrusting a waterskin at Alayne. “You look like you could use it.”

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“Thank you,” she whispered wearily. Taking a long draught, she passed it to Zerith who gulped down a few swallows before passing it back to the hunter. The trio had become fast friends over their duties. “I’m looking forward to bed tonight,” she added. “I could use a good nap myself,” Zerith muttered. “However, it looks like there will be no rest for the weary.” “She’s not so harsh a task master,” Ber’lon replied. “Trust me, I’ve had worse.” Erona was indeed emerging from the domed building where she had been meeting with the others in charge of Sunstrider Isle’s reclamation. She glanced around the area, clearly impressed with the progress that had been made. Her lips thinned to a harsh line, however, when she saw how few were left. Shaking her head and muttering to herself, the Magistrix walked over to them. “You have done well,” she announced, praising their efforts. “Sunstrider Isle will soon be ready to welcome others to its shores. However, there is one final task that we have to undertake before the island will be ours once more. Here, I will let Lanthan Perilon explain the situation.” A second sin’dorei, his hair pale gold and hanging to his waist, walked up beside Erona. He nodded politely in greeting and then pointed west towards the spiraling building that had once been among the finest schools in Quel’Thalas. “A betrayer of our people resides atop Falthrien Academy to the southwest,” he said simply. “He profanes and twists, with his foul presence, that which was once pure and beautiful. Felendren is his name, and he was banished from blood elf lands for failing to heed the warnings of our teachers and elders. He is the worst of our society, as he lives only to feed his insatiable magical addictions. He refused to learn control; he is a shell of his former self - one of the Wretched - and he is a threat to the Sunspire.” Alayne closed her eyes, feeling a momentary twinge of sorrow laced with fear. The Wretched were truly a wretched lot. Unable to discipline themselves to drawing only the energy they needed to take the edge off the loss of the Sunwell, they gorged on fel energies until their very bodies were twisted and broken by the strain. It was a danger that lurked for any elves who returned to Quel’Thalas. “What would you have us do?” Ber’lon asked quietly. “Surely the Blood Knights and the army are too busy to keep watch over prisoners if they were too busy to guard the borders from one sentenced to exile.” Lanthan nodded. “What you say is accurate. You must destroy him and the wraiths he uses as minions. Once that is done, we will be able to reclaim the Academy for ourselves once more.” “Kill him,” Alayne muttered. “You want us to kill him?” “He would kill any of you,” Lanthan said mercilessly. “He has made the rules for this game. We must abide by them or be ready to surrender. That is the way of the world, young one.” “I understand how you feel,” Zerith whispered as Lanthan and Erona strode back into the shade of the domed building. “But, sometimes it is kill or be killed.” “Zerith is right,” Ber’lon agreed. “Besides, if he has succumbed and become a Wretched, it’s more a mercy to kill him than to let him suffer on until madness overwhelms him.” “I suppose you’re right,” Alayne sighed. “Let’s be on with it, then.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne sat at the table in a darkened corner of the inn. Her plate was untouched. The smell of food was noxious to her now. Her two friends had gone up to the room they were 9


sharing now that Sunstrider Isle had been reclaimed and the magisters had urged them to lend their assistance to the efforts in Falconwing Square. Alayne did not feel like walking up the spiraled gilt staircase to her own room in the inn. She also did not feel like eating or remaining in the common room for much longer. Shoving her still-full plate away, she rose and strode out of the inn. Evening had settled over the square. A peaceful quiet lay thick upon it. The babble of the water in the fountain, the jingle of the soldiers’ armor, and the faint chirping of crickets were the only sounds that could be heard. Alayne treasured the silence, savoring it as she rarely had before. “Are you all right?” a soft baritone voice asked. Alayne turned around to see Zerith standing a few feet behind her. “You’ve been quiet ever since the Academy.” “I’m just tired,” she whispered, not wanting to further disrupt the silence. “It was your first battle, wasn’t it?” the priest said, drawing up to stand beside her. “It was hardly a battle,” she snorted. “The size doesn’t matter, Alayne,” he said gently. “You only did what you had to do. Both Felendren and Thaelis had their chance to leave peacefully. You saw what those with Thaelis did to Alarion.” Alayne shuddered, remembering the shock of seeing Alarion’s corpse in the middle of the road. Her skin had still been warm. The Wretched who had taken control of the building opposite Falconwing Square had slaughtered her and stolen the package of supplies she’d been carrying to the inn. She’d never seen violent death before. She looked at Zerith and tried to compose her thoughts. It wasn’t that she’d killed a half-dozen men that day that had her on edge… …it was that she had almost been unable to stop killing them. She’d felt no pleasure in the doing but she had been satisfied to see those who would betray her people destroyed. She also felt no real sorrow about their deaths. At last, after a lengthy silence, she shook her head. “I’m just tired, Zerith. Come on, let’s go to sleep. We still have plenty of work ahead of us tomorrow.” ~*~*~*~ Zerith looked relieved the next morning when he and Ber’lon came downstairs to see Alayne eating a healthy breakfast while studying a grimoire. She smiled a greeting at the pair and motioned for them to join her at the table. They paused only to make their orders at the inn’s kitchen and then sat down to join her while waiting for their own breakfasts. “Shadow Spells and Fel Fire,” Ber’lon muttered, reading the title of the tome Alayne studied. “That’s so far beyond me that I can barely understand the title.” Alayne grinned and shook her head. She caught Zerith’s glance and her grin froze and fell off her face. The priest was staring at her with the strangest look of sorrow mingled with longing. Closing her book, she leaned her elbows on the table, clasped her hands beneath her chin, and studied her companions. Ber’lon had long black hair that was tied back in a hasty tail that spilled over his shoulders. His eyes, like her own, were slowly changing from their natural color – emerald green for him and sapphire for her – to a bright green. His skin was dusky from long days spent outdoors in the sun where hers was fairer. The faint red tone – a flush that indicated her feeding on the demonic energies in place of the Sunwell – was more obvious in her color than the hunter’s. Ber’lon was also sturdily built and had an air of rugged good health often found in those who sought home and hearth in the forest instead of the cities. By contrast, Zerith, who was still staring at her as if he did not know quite what to make of her, had shoulderlength reddish brown hair and bright green eyes. His skin, like her own, was fairer in 10


complexion than Ber’lon’s. Both he and the hunter sported a day’s worth of stubble on their cheeks and chins as neither had bothered to shave that morning. During her study, Zerith shook himself as if to clear his thoughts and took a seat at the table. Their breakfast arrived a short time later and the three ate in silence, Alayne sneaking regretful glances at her books and wishing she could read more before they had to set out. Before they had even finished eating, the local guard commander poked his head into the inn, relieved to see them still there. “Thank you for the short work you made of that Wretched infestation,” he said as he walked over to their table. “If you have the time, I’ve got some more work lined up for you.” “Certainly,” Zerith answered for them. “We’re eager to be of assistance.” “Good, good,” the commander said. “Magister Jaronis asked me to speak with you. If you’ll head over to the West Sanctum, they’re currently dealing with an infestation of arcane pests. Here’s a letter of introduction for you to present to Ley-Keeper Velania. Oh, and if you stop by the North Sanctum, don’t be alarmed. They’ve got a dwarf there helping to oversee the strengthening of the supports. Don’t bother him and he won’t bother you.” The three nodded and rose to follow the commander out of the inn. Outside in the square, they could see other recruits busily working to break down the golem patrollers who had gone berserk and needed to be brought back under control. Others were combing through the ruins to gather up the mana crystals that the Wretched had stolen and hoarded for themselves. Waving to a few they had come across in the inn the night before, the trio set out for the other side of the square and entered Eversong Woods. Taking the road out of Falconwing Square, they followed the path past the North Sanctum where, sure enough, they could see a dwarven architect discussing the structure with its keeper. Ignoring them, they continued on southwards, passing by some students who were frantically searching for a book they’d lost. The pair tried to cajole them into aiding them but Alayne laughed and shook her head. “Perhaps the punishment Magister Antheol metes out will teach you to be more responsible with his books. Besides, aren’t you two missing his lesson now?” Continuing on to the fork that took them to the West Sanctum, they paused when Alayne stopped in the center of the road midway up the hill. The stench of arcane power hung thick in the air to one sensitive to it and she felt as if she might choke. “What in the name of the Light is going on there?” she wondered. Zerith put a comforting hand on her shoulder and they continued on to the sanctum. A harassed-looking and harried sin’dorei woman, the Ley-Keeper Velania, gestured for them to come closer. She plucked the letter of introduction from Zerith’s hand before the priest had a chance to ask a question and then snorted. “I warned of the dangers of increasing the load on the West Sanctum!” she growled. “Now one of the energy converters is destroyed and arcane wraiths are pouring out of the sanctum! I’m going to need you to take care of those creatures before we send anyone in for repairs! Make haste!” she ordered, pointing at the sanctum. The building was set in a depression in the hill and dozens of arcane wraiths darted around the clearing. “What are those?” Zerith asked in a whisper as they took the stairs down to the area. The creatures largely ignored them for the moment. “Mana wraiths,” Alayne winced. “They’re not difficult to destroy but they do make me want to sneeze.” “So, how do we destroy them? They’re pure arcane energy, right?” Ber’lon asked. “Just like we destroyed the mana wyrms yesterday. They’re magical beings, yes, but they are physical. If their bodies die, so do they.” “Then let’s get to it,” Zerith suggested.

11


~*~*~*~ “You’re Cloudslasher’s student?” the Ley-Keeper asked an hour later when the wraiths were dead and the Sanctum back in working order. Alayne nodded. “I am.” “I thought I recognized his spell forms. He’s a good one. Not as good as his own instructor, Mir’el, but still more than decent.” Alayne and the others collected a few silvers in payment for their services and nodded their thanks. The task had not been difficult and, once the Sanctum had been powered down, correcting the defect in its workings had taken Alayne all of five minutes. Still, she was happy to hear the clinking of coins in her pouch. If she were able to find more reliable work, she could consider living independently once her studies were complete. So lost was she in her own dreams of one day having a home of her own with a garden and a full kitchen that she did not notice Ber’lon stopped right in front of her until she ran into his back. Before she could ask him why he was stopped, he lifted a hand and motioned for silence. Reaching down to stroke Sunspot’s head, he pointed at a thick bush. The lynx was off at once and Ber’lon had an arrow nocked and fired before Alayne could wonder at his behavior. A sharp pain-filled cry rose from the bush. Sunspot growled and then whimpered. Without explanation, Ber’lon waded in, rushing to the lynx’s defense. He grappled with the hidden attacker and forced him out of his hiding spot. Alayne gasped when she caught her first real glimpse of the attacker. A night elf dressed in dark leathers wielding twin daggers had been hiding in the underbrush. Alayne had seen only a few of the near-legendary kaldorei during her time in Menethil after the Battle of Mount Hyjal. They were staunch members of the Alliance now. But what was one doing here, in Eversong? The night elf managed to shove Ber’lon off him and rolled quickly. Before Ber’lon could gather himself, the lavender-skinned man was on top of him, daggers flashing towards Ber’lon’s throat. Almost without thought, Alayne unleashed a bolt of shadow that struck the night elf in the back. Green fire and black smoke surrounded him as the bolt exploded. He cried out in agony as she followed up with one of the curses she’d been taught. Next to her, Zerith cast his own spells to shield and fortify Ber’lon while draining his night elven attacker. Ber’lon whistled and Sunspot sprang from the bush, sinking his teeth into the night elf’s neck. At the same moment that Sunspot attacked, Alayne stepped in and planted her own dagger in the man’s back. The night elf collapsed with a liquid grunt, his life-blood spilling out from his throat and back. Zerith rolled the night elf off Ber’lon and helped the hunter stagger to his feet. “What in the name of the Light was he doing here?” the priest asked, voicing the question on everyone’s mind. “A spy,” Ber’lon rasped, rubbing his throat. The kaldorei had tried to strangle him while the pair grappled in the brush. “Search his pockets. Perhaps we’ll learn more about what he was doing here.” Steeling herself to the distasteful task, Alayne knelt and began riffling through the night elf’s pockets. Ber’lon pushed through the brush and spotted a small leather satchel. Zerith simply stared at the dead man, studying his face as if the corpse would tell him the tale. “Here’s something,” Ber’lon muttered, pulling a bundle of papers out of the pack. “I can’t read it, though. I’m not sure of the language.” Alayne scrambled over and plucked the documents from his hands. Scanning them, she nodded to herself. “I’m no expert, but this looks like old Thalassian. It’s probably

12


Darnassian – the kaldorei tongue. It’s akin to our own in some ways but completely alien in others.” “You can read that?” Zerith asked, impressed. “Not really,” Alayne admitted. “I can make out that it has something to do with the areas that once housed the Keys to Quel’Thalas. But, I get that more from the maps and diagrams than from the text itself.” “Perhaps someone else could decipher it and tell us what it says,” the priest mused. “At any rate, we should take it back to Falconwing Square and let the guards know that there are spies in our midst.” “That sounds like a good plan to me,” Ber’lon agreed. “Let’s tell the Ley-Keeper to keep an eye out in case this fellow had friends.” Ber’lon trotted back towards the Sanctum to inform Velania of her uninvited observers while Alayne and Zerith dragged the body back into the brush and covered it with leaves. Sunspot stayed with them, watching his master’s attacker with a grim satisfaction. Alayne wondered if this would be only the first of many attempted invasions from their nowdistant cousins and former allies. She prayed that the peace she’d begun to find in her homeland would not be disturbed too much in the coming days. ~*~*~*~ The three returned to Falconwing Square and were directed to the captain, Aeldon Sunbrand. A veteran of the campaign in Kalimdor, Sunbrand was fluent in all of the Alliance languages and had been one of the first to pick up Orcish. He studied the documents for long moments, agreeing with Alayne that many of them were written in Darnassian. However, the most relevant ones were actually in Dwarven. The captain studied them for a long while before puffing out his cheeks, sighing, and eyeing the three young sin’dorei as if they had dreamed this up just to plague him. “Blast that Anvilward!” he swore, folding his arms over his chest and leaning backwards to stare at the sky. “We were fools to let him come here. Listen, you three,” he sighed, leaning in closer to them and glancing around conspiratorially. “This is a very delicate situation. Even though we’ve identified the spy, we cannot kill him out in the open. We cannot try to capture him either as the risk of him escaping is too great. I want you three to go find Prospector Anvilward at the North Sanctum and kill him. Do this in a quiet manner. We don’t want word to spread that we allowed – no, invited – a spy into our city. Bring me his head as proof. Ironforge will learn not to meddle with the sin’dorei.” Zerith set his lips in a thin line but nodded, accepting the mission. Ber’lon looked unsurprised by the turn of events and nodded thoughtfully. Alayne sighed and agreed as well. If word got out that a spy from the Alliance had been allowed free run of Eversong Woods and Silvermoon city, the sin’dorei’s confidence in their army would falter. They could not allow themselves to be seen as anything less than powerful, nearly immortal masters of magic. Their true weaknesses would overwhelm them and encourage further attacks if their one-time allies were to learn just how fragile the façade was. “How are we going to do this?” Zerith wondered aloud as they made their way back through the gate that separated Falconwing Square from Eversong. “We’ll have to do it inside the Sanctum,” Ber’lon muttered. “Otherwise, any passerby could see.” “I’ll lure him inside somehow,” Alayne volunteered. “I…I served in a tavern in Menethil Harbor. I’m sure I can come up with something to spark his curiosity enough to overcome his good sense.” “I’m not sure I like that idea at all,” Zerith protested. 13


Alayne ignored the priest for a moment and reached out. Channeling the fel energies that she had learned to command, she wrested part of the Twisting Nether, taming it to her control and calling forth an imp. The creature was small, not much larger than a noblewoman’s pet lapdog. Green felfire sparked from its scrawny frame. Mentally, Alayne ordered the creature to give her its name. Working its name into the summoning spell, Alayne completed the incantation that bound the creature completely to her will. “Follow me,” she ordered it in a leaden voice. Quick rapid strides forced Zerith and Ber’lon to trot to catch up with her as she continued towards the North Sanctum. “You don’t have to do this,” the priest whispered. “Perhaps I could…” “I’m not going to do anything too terrible,” Alayne replied softly. “It’s just trickery.” “Still, you’re too good to even imply that…” “I implied it quite enough back in Menethil. It was that or not eat.” “You’re among your own kind now. You shouldn’t…” “I do this only because it’s necessary. I don’t like it any more than you do.” Zerith raised his hands, conceding the point. “Besides,” Alayne added with a wry grin, “if this doesn’t work, we just have Ber’lon clap a hand over the dwarf’s mouth and drag him bodily into the Sanctum.” A few moments later saw the three on the steps leading down to the Sanctum. The keeper stared at them in confusion for a moment but Zerith and Ber’lon quickly drew him aside, telling him that Captain Sunbrand had sent them to bring him a message concerning the order he’d made at the Falconwing inn. Alayne huffed and stepped inside the Sanctum as if fatigued. Fishing Ber’lon’s flask from her pouch and took a loud guzzle. Anvilward saw her and looked intrigued. He smacked his lips loudly and eyed her companions. “I’ve always been curious about something,” she said brightly, feigning intoxication. “These Sanctums…they have some strange vaulting on the ceiling. I remember wondering how the dome kept from collapsing when I was a child. Have you ever seen it clearly?” “Nae, I’ve not, lass. I’d love to take a look at this feature yer talkin’ about,” the dwarf muttered into his beard, staring at both the woman and the flask as if torn between which one struck his fancy the most. “It’s right up here,” Alayne shouted as she scampered up the ramp. Sending a mental command to the imp she’d left stationed in the underbrush out of sight of the Sanctum, she ordered it to attend to her now. She could feel the minion drawing closer. She prayed it would be close enough. For her part, she began summoning the shadows and preparing her curses to lay on the dwarf the minute he reached the platform. Anvilward reached the top of the ramp and Alayne’s shadow bolt exploded against his chest. His jet black beard caught flame from the dark fire of the spell and he flailed wildly, trying to swat it out. “What kind of trickery is this?” he roared. Alayne hissed. She’d been hoping that her first spell would be the only one needed. She cast a curse on him, sapping his strength, and began preparing a spell to melt his flesh from his bones. Her imp minion Azyal scampered up the ramp and hurled a firebolt at the dwarf’s back. Before Alayne could complete her cast, she saw a shield spring up around her and an arrowhead blossom out of the dwarf’s chest. Anvilward stared down at the arrow in horror before he staggered and collapsed. Alayne glanced down to see Ber’lon lowering his bow, a faint grin on his face. Their plan had worked. Now they just had to find a discreet way to carry the dwarf’s head back to the captain in Falconwing Square. ~*~*~*~

14


Zerith and Alayne made their way back towards Silvermoon city late in the day. Ber’lon, hearing rumors of disturbances in Fairbreeze Village – his home as a child – had decided to part ways with the others for the time being. The late evening sun sent shadows down the blackened, burnt scar that cut through Quel’Thalas from Deatholme to the Sunwell. As the pair approached it, Alayne stopped in her tracks and could not move. Echoing through the otherwise quiet forest air were the sounds of frantic combat. Zerith moved to see if he could be of assistance but Alayne sank to the ground, her fingers curling into the grassy sod and her breath coming in gasps and pants as panic took her. When the priest realized that his friend was not keeping pace with him, he turned and ran back to her, worry clear on his face. “Alayne?” he asked softly, squatting down beside her. Calling on the Light, he gently probed her for signs of illness or injury but found nothing aside from stark terror and panic. “Alayne, what’s wrong?” “I…I can’t…,” she gasped. Visions of her father falling at the Sunwell, of the Scourge scouring her home, the nightmares of many sleepless nights since she’d learned of her father’s death, assailed her as the sounds of battle rang out from the Dead Scar. She could remember the sickly smell of burning flesh, the thick smoke that had curled up to the sky as she and her mother made their escape on one of the dragonhawks while her father hurried to rejoin his garrison before the gates of Silvermoon. Her stomach lurched as she recalled that day. She gagged and choked as the pain of memory overwhelmed her. “Ssh,” Zerith whispered, pulling her into a companionable embrace and rocking her gently. “It’s just those roving skeletons. There are no necromancers to command them. The rangers are just clearing them out so that travel between Silvermoon and other parts of Quel’Thalas won’t be threatened. There’s no need to worry. No one will force you to face it until you’re ready.” Stronger sobs wracked the woman as she wept bitterly while her friend held her and tried to calm her. “You…you s-s-sound like my f-f-father,” she groaned. “I’m s-s-sorry…” “Hush now,” he said tenderly, smoothing her hair and brushing tears away from her cheeks with his knuckle. “It’s okay. The battle is over now. Hear it?” Alayne swallowed her sobs and listened. The sounds of the battle had faded. Once again birds chirped and squirrels chattered. Faint laughter, a sound unknown to the Scourge, rang in the air. The battle was over and the sin’dorei were victorious. Alayne grew calmer and, nodding her thanks to her friend, pushed herself out of his lap and up to her feet. Zerith helped her steady herself with a calm smile on his face. Alayne glanced at him and noticed that his own eyes were hard and bright with a mix of anger, sorrow, and longing. “Zerith?” she asked. “I’m sorry,” he sighed, forcing himself back to the present. “It’s just that you remind me so much of my youngest sister…” “Sister?” she whispered. “Where is she?” The warmth in his eyes flared to the heat of bitter anger. “She died,” he muttered. “Arthas killed her.” Alayne and Zerith stood still for a moment later before the priest drew a ragged breath of his own, forced himself to a disciplined calm once more, and took her hand, leading her over the Dead Scar and back to their homes in Silvermoon. ~*~*~*~ Jez’ral nodded his approval of the imp Alayne was able to control. She demonstrated her spells and practiced some more advanced ones under his supervision, working with the incantations until she had the correct tone, inflection, and pitch memorized. Her two days 15


working to help reclaim Sunstrider Isle and Falconwing Square had allowed her to grow more confident in her spell-work and had helped to increase her endurance for casting far more than the previous month’s study in safe, confined conditions had. “You’re doing well,” he said evenly. “But, there is always room for improvement.” “What do you mean?” she asked. “I mean that it is time for you to consider what you want to do with your life. I know that you are young – before the Scourge invasion, you would not even have been allowed to become an apprentice. However, as you have no doubt heard,” he frowned with distaste, “such traditions cannot be strictly adhered to while our survival as a people is still in question.” Alayne blushed and nodded. She’d heard the speeches in the bazaar about the various duties to the blood that were being asked of women her age. While sin’dorei matured at only a slightly slower pace than humans, once they reached physical adulthood, they slowed. A sin’dorei, quel’dorei, or even a kaldorei would change little from the time they reached the age of sixteen or seventeen. In the days before the Scourge invasion, Alayne, now seventeen, would have been considered just out of childhood. She would have been beginning to consider a course of study and would have been carefully shielded from the first onset of adulthood by her parents and by a culture that felt itself assured of centuries. However, now, those who would have once protected her sought to encourage her to take on duties and responsibilities to the race that she would not have been asked to consider until she was well into mental and emotional adulthood around the age of sixty or seventy. “Those are not the traditions of which I speak, young one,” Jez’ral murmured dryly, knowing from Alayne’s flushed cheeks and downcast gaze exactly where her mind had gone. “You were forced to grow up quickly to take care of your mother, to work in a tavern, and then to begin wrestling with decisions after your mother’s death. And, even as you seek protection from those problems, you yearn for greater independence. I have heard it in your words while you were telling me about what you and those two young men did.” “What do you mean?” “I mean that perhaps it is time for you to travel a bit. The world is filled with itinerant adventurers who give their efforts to those around them and then journey on. I think that may be a better life for you now than one spent safely behind the gates of Silvermoon studying dusty tomes day in and day out.” “You want me to leave?” she asked, a hint of panic in her voice. “Light no!” he gasped. “You will be welcome here as my apprentice until you have completed your Master’s training which – even if you did study day in and day out for it, you would not be prepared for before two or three more years had passed. However, what I am suggesting is that you and those other two take some more time and travel through Quel’Thalas. Down in the Ghostlands I’m sure there are many things you could do to help.” “The Ghostlands,” she shivered. “Indeed, your next step of training will take you there.” “Next step of training?” she asked, intrigued. “You’ve proven that you can command a simple demon to your will,” he gestured at the imp. “Your spells have gained power and you are more assured of their results. You still follow a somewhat formulaic approach to casting but creativity will come with time and confidence. That confidence will come with experience. The best way I can think for you to gain experience is to go out into the world – knowing, of course, that you have a place to return to if you need it – and work for it.” “I’ll think about it,” she replied. “I’ll think about it.” ~*~*~*~ 16


Zerith shuddered and wrapped his stole more tightly around him. He’d flown over the Ghostlands on his return to Quel’Thalas and had little intention of setting foot near his former home for years longer. However, when Alayne had approached him with the suggestion of traveling there to lend assistance on the frontier, he had felt oddly compelled to go with her. Part of it was her uncanny resemblance to his own sister and part of it was the thought of someone even younger than he struggling to right the wrongs inflicted on and by their elders all on her own. Ahead of him, Alayne stared down the hill that lead into the Ghostlands. She shaded her eyes with a hand and then hiked her skirts to her knees and ran down the hill, shouting for him to follow her. Zerith shrugged and jogged after her, wondering what she had seen. She staggered to a halt half-way down and knelt beside a sin’dorei courier who had collapsed in the roadway. A Forsaken, her robes proclaiming her a member of the Royal Apothecary Society, ducked out of the small hut that overlooked the border bridge. She carried a vial of some potion in her skeletal hand and waved the warlock away. “There’s nothing wrong with him that a little of this won’t cure in short order,” the Forsaken said in a brisk, business-like manner. “Still, you should be careful of wandering through the Ghostlands. They’re not as tainted as the Plaguelands but they’re bad enough.” “What happened to him?” Zerith asked as he reached them. Bending down, he laid a hand on the man’s forehead. A slight fever burned through the courier and the priest could see and sense bite wounds on the man’s body. “He probably got bitten by one of the creatures near the border,” the Forsaken said dismissively. “He’s got a weak constitution compared to one of us. But, enough of this will fix him in no time.” “Here,” Zerith offered, “allow me to help so that you need not waste your medicine.” The Forsaken nodded in acceptance, rose, and stepped back. Drawing on his faith, Zerith cleansed the starting infection and closed the wounds. The courier would still need to rest and take it easy but he would not spend several days abed while his body fought off the illness that had threatened. Once the healing was complete, the Forsaken called for some of her companions to come and carry the elf indoors and put him to bed. “That was good work,” she said graciously. “If you two are looking to make your way in the world, you could do worse than stopping by Tranquillen to help those gathered there. From what I’ve heard, your people have done well reclaiming this part of your kingdom but there’s still plenty of work to be had south of the river.” “We will head that direction, then,” Alayne said. “Thank you.” The pair made their farewells to the Forsaken and then continued their trek south in silence. Zerith glanced around at the dark forests, remembering the days when they had been just as verdant and peaceful as the forests around Silvermoon. Now, however, they were tainted and twisted by the polluting presence of the Scourge. Wispy, ghost-like moss hung from the bare branches of skeletal trees. The ground was barren. What little growth sprang from the rocky soil was dark and chill to the touch. The light of the sun was unable to penetrate the perpetual shade of necromantic magic that blanketed the land. The last gasp of autumn hung in the air – the spells that held the rest of Quel’Thalas in eternal summer could not stretch across the river yet. Following the cobbled road into Tranquillen, the pair stopped and asked the guards what they could do to help. The guards were first disappointed that they were only a priest and a warlock. Requests for fresh troops and rotations of duty back to Eversong were frequent enough. Now that they learned that only a handful of bare-adults – not even trained for combat – were willing to venture south of the Elrendar river, the frustrations began to run high. However, when they did learn that the pair were earnest in their desire to help out, even 17


if they were not suited to joining the Silvermoon Army, the guards and leaders in Tranquillen were quick to give them work to do. “If you were to ask me,” one of the guards muttered, glancing about to make certain none of his superiors could overhear him, “the best thing to do would be to gather an army and attack Deatholme head-on. The Scourge swarm out of there. If we could destroy it, that would be a mighty blow against them and would give us enough breathing space to actually make headway here. However, no one wants to do that. The commanders of the Silvermoon Army have looked it over and say that it’s not worth the cost in lives right now. And, more likely than not, they’re right. So, you could start off by helping us clear out the ghosts in Goldenmist Village and Windrunner Village. There are a good number of cultists hiding out in Windrunner Village as well. If their numbers were thinned down, that might help with the Scourge problem. At the very least, clearing those areas out would put a dent in some of their havens and give us a real chance to hold the advances they make through the Dead Scar.” “We will be heading to Goldenmist Village, then,” Alayne said. “We’ll do what we can there.” “Good luck to you both. May the eternal sun guide your path.” Zerith stared quizzically at Alayne as she lead him down the path towards the Dead Scar and Goldenmist Village. He tried to ignore the sense of panic and despair he could feel welling up within him. He remembered Goldenmist Village all too well. It had been his home as a young child and youth. He and his sisters had been born within one of the houses on the outskirts of the village. His father, Ren’im, had been the priest in charge of the local shrine. Many days, he had ducked his studies to swim or fish in the river that ran behind the town. As he grew older and had the beginnings of responsibility laid on his shoulder, he had given up those simple escapes to spend time maintaining and praying in the town’s holy shrine. To face returning to it, to see his childhood home despoiled by the Scourge and the ghosts of those he had known wandering the broken streets…he shivered at the thought. “What’s wrong, Zerith?” Alayne asked, her aquamarine eyes wide with concern. “Goldenmist Village is where I grew up,” he said in a small voice. “I’ve little liking for returning and seeing it…” he could not finish. Alayne reached up and patted him on the shoulder. She smiled sympathetically with true understanding. “I know how it feels,” she said gently. “If you can’t go, then don’t. I do have something I need to do there myself but you do not need to accompany me.” “What is it you have to do there?” he asked. “The warlocks have been using a building there for…more advanced summoning,” she admitted, biting her lower lip and looking up at him apologetically. He nodded and waved for her to continue. “Some demons are too risky to summon in the quarters in Murder Row,” she explained. “And, part of our training is learning to summon and command these creatures beyond the safe confines of a controlled environment. Since no one lives in the village anymore and the only risk is to the warlock and the ghosts, it was decided to create a summoning chamber in Goldenmist Village.” “And what do you have to do?” “Well, I’ll need to gather a voidstone from the Dead Scar. The Scourge carry them but often discard them. Voidstones are one of the ways a necromancer can keep control of a minion from a vast distance. They can also be used to spy on others. However, since the Scourge are completely mindless, they’ll often drop them and leave them where they lay. Finding one will not be too difficult. Once I’ve done that, I’ll go to the summoning chamber and attempt to call forth and command a voidwalker. If I succeed, I’ll have proven myself strong enough to access the more advanced classes of spellbooks.” “Is this dangerous?”

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“Any kind of magic is dangerous,” she equivocated. Zerith glared at her and she shrugged. “It could be,” she admitted. “Then I will come with you.” “If you do,” she said, raising a hand, “then you should know that you will not be able to help me control it. At best, you’d be able to protect me from its rampaging. Don’t try to attack it with holy magic. That will only enrage it and make it stronger and more difficult to control.” “I see,” the priest sighed. “It’s often like that. Opposites might annihilate each other but the energy expenditures in doing so often create an effect that is far more than the sum of its parts.” “A priest who’s studied arcane elementals,” Alayne muttered, impressed. “A priest who had three sisters who were mages in training,” he grimaced. “I know their lessons almost as well as I know my own.” “I’ll bet they say the same thing about you,” she teased lightly. “No, they don’t,” he whispered. “I’m the only one who survived.” “I’m sorry,” she replied, reaching out and hugging him. “I knew that your youngest sister was…gone but not that…you were like me. Alone.” “It’s okay,” he sighed. “It happened three years ago. Now,” he said, taking a deep breath and centering himself, “let’s go take care of what you need to do.” ~*~*~*~ “This used to be the elder’s home,” Zerith muttered, unable to wholly keep the disapproval from his voice. “I know,” Alayne said meekly. “But, it was the only one that still had a sound roof.” “What do you need to do now?” Alayne pulled out the voidstone she’d found near the Dead Scar. She motioned for Zerith to stand to one side of the room while she walked into the center of the glowing green summoning circle. The demonic energies scribed on the floor rose up around her, surrounding her, buffeting her, and trying to break her resolve as she focused on tapping into the voidstone. The dark blue crystal pulsed in her hand, sending out waves of cold so intense it burned. She forced herself to ignore the pain and distractions. Giving in to them would prove fatal. Instead, she channeled her spell, drawing on and mastering the energies of the circle. Tearing open a small hole in the fabric of reality around her, she reached into the Twisting Nether, searching out her quarry. Finding what she sought, she snared it and began muttering the incantation that would pull the demon from the Nether to Azeroth. Once the spell was complete, a dark voidwalker appeared in the summoning circle. It raised wispy fists at the warlock and rushed towards her, seeking to end her domination of its will while she was weakened from calling it forth. Forcing down panic, she fought back, searing the creature with the very fires that gave it birth. The voidwalker roared and redoubled its efforts. Tapping into its source of power, Alayne pulled that magical energy into herself, draining the creature until it was too weak to continue the battle. “Your name, creature?” she commanded silently, her mind touching the consciousness that drove the voidwalker on. “Jhaztast,” the voidwalker replied in the same manner. Its tone, while angry, was tinged with the barest traces of respect. The harsh green glare of the circle began to fade now that the spell was complete and the demon was under her control. Zerith stared at her, wide-eyed, wondering when the battle would begin. Once she had summoned the rift, the shielding enchantment laid on the circle

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had prevented him from seeing beyond the border. “Alayne?” he asked, his voice filled with concern. “It’s done,” she whispered, swaying on her feet. “He is under my control.” Before she could say another word, the room tilted and grew dark. ~*~*~*~ “Alayne,” he said. His voice was soft and sibilant. “Alayne.” “Who’s there?” she asked, frightened by the chill darkness surrounding her. The young woman stood in a frozen wasteland, a place that never knew summer. Standing before her was a man who no longer knew warmth of any kind. “He’s mine, you know,” the dread man said, his tone filled with amused mockery. “Who are you?” she demanded, her voice growing more shrill as panic threatened to overwhelm her. “He’s mine and you will be mine too, little Alayne,” the stranger sneered. “Look, and see your own doom!” Glancing beyond him, she saw… “Alayne! Wake up!” Alayne’s eyes popped open and she nearly screamed in fright. Zerith stood over her, shaking her gently but insistently. “Where am I?” she asked, wincing at the loudness of her own voice. “Back in Tranquillien,” Zerith replied. “You fainted after summoning that voidwalker. It bowed to you and vanished. I carried you back here to the inn so you could rest.” “I…I see,” she whispered. She reached up and rubbed at her temples. Her head pounded abominably. Zerith pulled the coverlet up over her again and ran his fingers over her forehead. Nodding to himself, he left the room with quick strides, returning moments later with a mug of steaming tea. “Here,” he said, helping her to sit up and then placing the mug against her lips. “Drink this. It will help.” Alayne gulped down the tea, barely wincing in distaste at its strong flavor. “What was in that?” she asked after she passed the mug back to the priest. “It’s a mix that I used to give Valara after she woke up from a nightmare. She’d always have the worst headaches after a bad dream.” “Valara?” “My youngest sister,” he explained. “The one you bear an absolutely uncanny resemblance to in more ways than one.” “I wish I was your sister,” Alayne whispered, laying back down in the bed. Zerith smoothed the coverlet over her and then walked over to the washing basin. Dipping a facecloth in the cool water, he wrung it out and then walked over and draped it over Alayne’s forehead. “If you were my brother, I could ask you to stay here so that the bad dreams would stay away. My father used to do that when I was little.” Zerith studied her with an odd expression on his face. After a long moment of thought, he walked over and pulled the lone chair from behind the small writing table and set it next to the bed. Sitting in it, he folded his arms over his chest. “I’ll stay here and keep the dreams away,” he whispered, patting her hand fondly. “Go back to sleep.” “You don’t have to,” she whispered. “You don’t have to look after me like this.” “I’ll do it anyway,” he said. “Thank you.” “Alayne,” he whispered, “we’re sin’dorei. We have to look out for each other. No one else will look after us.” 20


Alayne smiled and closed her eyes once more, letting the tea Zerith had fixed her pull her back into slumber. ~*~*~*~ Alayne sighed as she and Zerith walked down the pathway from Windrunner Spire. The pair had been in the Ghostlands for over a fortnight and had helped lay to rest the wandering spirits in Goldenmist Village, had fought back the nerubian invasion of Suncrown Village, and had worked with the local guard force to reclaim Windrunner Village. They had also helped to end the Darnassian incursion into their territory and even cleared out the Scourge ziggurats that overlooked the only secure roadway connecting their territory to the rest of Lordaeron. Yet, still, the Scourge swarmed up the Dead Scar. Daily attacks against the Farstriders’ and the Army’s positions along the Scar were a fact of life. Despite their success in reclaiming control of vast swathes of the Ghostlands, the leadership in the capital refused to send the numbers needed to destroy Deatholme once and for all. With discouraged hearts, the two elves headed back to Tranquillien from the great spire that overlooked both Windrunner Village and the sea. A band of cultists had taken over the area. Alayne and Zerith had disguised themselves as members of the cult and infiltrated their sanctum before destroying it and blasting their way through the numbers that assailed them. A good many human bodies now dotted the rocky cliff-face beneath the spire, causalities of war. “Alayne, look out!” Zerith shouted, jerking the young woman from her thoughts. A swarm of banshees was rushing down the pathway after them, controlled by a trio of necromancers they had thought dead. Without stopping to question the turn of events, Alayne summoned her voidwalker and ordered it to attack the cultists while she and Zerith made short work of the banshees. The necromancers were obviously still weak from the beating the pair had given them before and thus unable to unleash the full extent of their spells against the two elves. The banshees were quickly dispatched and then the priest and warlock turned their ire on the cultists. Spells flew through the air, smashing into the cultists, setting their robes and flesh aflame and sapping what little energy they had left. When they collapsed to the ground, Alayne walked back up the path and slit their throats to ensure that there would be no more surprises from them. “I’m going to clean up our mess a little more thoroughly,” she said to Zerith. The priest was studying the remains left behind by the banshees, looking for more scourgestones. During his time with the Forsaken in Tranquillien, the priest had become involved in several of their alchemical experiments, the latest involving the scourgestones. Alayne grinned at his distracted acknowledgement and then ordered her voidwalker to sling the corpses over its shoulders. The demon and its mistress returned to the spire and scoured it of bodies. Should Arthas attempt to re-use these particular minions, he’d have to pull them out of the salty seawater first. “That’s done,” she announced as she exited the spire some time later. Dusting her hands, she walked down the path to where Zerith sat atop a small boulder, studying something in his hands. “What do you have there?” she asked curiously. “A pendant. See the inscription here? It says ‘To Sylvanas. Love always, Alleria.’ Either the cultists or the banshees must have found it in the ruins around here. Damned thieves,” he swore, pocketing it. “Perhaps we should return it to its proper owner,” Alayne suggested. “If I had any brothers or sisters, I would treasure any gifts from them beyond all the wealth in Lordaeron.” “You may be right,” Zerith muttered. “Though, from what I’ve heard, the Lady Sylvanas is greatly changed.” 21


“Of course she is!” Alayne replied heatedly. “Anyone who was murdered and then dragged back to an unnatural form of life and forced to serve their killer would be ‘greatly changed.’” “True enough,” Zerith acknowledged, grinning ruefully. “It was a poor choice of words. Let’s head back to Tranquillien. Who knows? Perhaps the Regent-Lord will have changed his mind since last evening and we’ll find a garrison of troops who can ensure that our efforts here won’t be undone in a few months,” he gestured to the spire and the land around it. The pair continued on their way back to Tranquillien, each pondering their own thoughts. Finally, just as the town appeared in the distance, Zerith stopped and studied the ground. “You’re right, you know,” he muttered. “Of course I am,” Alayne quipped lightly. “I’m always right. What, in particular, am I right about now?” “About treasuring things from family,” he grinned, amused at her sense of humor. “I wish that we had found some remnant of my family’s belongings when we cleared out Goldenmist Village.” “I wish that as well.” “But, they’re gone, aren’t they?” he said, his tone indicating that the question was rhetorical. “Our families’ belongings?” Alayne said, unwilling to let him drop the subject so quickly and on such a note. “And our families as well,” he sighed. “We really are alone in this world now.” “Well, you said it yourself,” Alayne whispered, reaching out and squeezing his arm comfortingly. “All we have is each other.” “I did say that, didn’t I?” Alayne chewed her lower lip worriedly. She hated seeing her friend so morose. He sighed and started to walk further towards the town. She laid a hand on his arm, stopping him again. He glanced at her expectantly. “Families,” she said softly, “when you get down to it, are nothing more than bonds of blood and oaths.” “What are you…” Alayne plucked her dagger from its sheath at her waist and dragged it across her palm. Then, without another word, she handed the dagger to him. He studied her bleeding hand for a moment and then nodded. Repeating her gesture, he passed the dagger back to her. She placed it back in its sheath with her uncut hand and then took his bleeding hand in her own. Pressing their palms together, she took a deep breath. “By my heart’s blood and my soul’s will, I vow that you, Zerith, are my brother in blood, from this day forward until eternity ends.” Zerith gripped her hand tightly with his own, overcome by a rush of emotions. Alayne struggled not to wince in pain while he searched for something to say in response. With a tearful smile, he said “And I swear by my heart’s blood, my soul’s will, and before the Light that you, Alayne, are my sister by blood, from this day until time itself dies. And now, little sister,” he said, the joy in his eyes taking a more mocking glint, “let me bandage your hand before it gets infected!” Alayne laughed with delight as her adopted brother unwound a bandage from his pouch and wrapped it around her palm. He muttered something about cleaning it more thoroughly when they got back to the inn. Performing the same task on his own hand, he wrapped his arms around her in a fraternal hug. The pair continued on to Tranquillien, completely oblivious to the change in the soil where their mingled blood had fallen. The barren soil, darkened by their blood, was enriched by the magic of their oath. As the seasons changed, that spot grew more fertile until a single red rose bloomed. 22


~*~*~*~ Zerith and Alayne reached Tranquillien just in time to lend their assistance to the guards as yet another Scourge attack swarmed over the barricades. Though both were mentally and physically drained from their day’s work at Windrunner Spire, they gave what they could, helping to repel the attackers. “They just keep coming. More and more of them all the time,” one of the guards grumbled as they dragged the carcasses away to be burnt. “They do,” Zerith agreed. “And they’ll keep coming until a group of us gets together enough strength to take down Deatholme and Dar’khan.” “Just as well to say ‘until the Dark Titan repents,’ as to say that,” muttered the guard. “Don’t talk that way!” Alayne shouted. “Dar’khan will be brought to justice; Deatholme will fall. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ merely one of ‘when.’” “Sure, lady. Whatever you say,” the guard muttered, sounding defeated. Alayne stared after the guard, her mouth hanging open with shock. Zerith touched her arm gently and she swallowed the words she had been about to say. The pair returned to the inn, leaving the rest of the clean-up effort to the guards. The priest unwound the bandage from her hand and began cleaning the wound and applying a salve to prevent infection and aid healing. “Don’t worry about arguing with anyone, Alayne,” Zerith counseled as he worked. “The humans say that actions speak louder than words. They’re right about that.” “What are you saying?” Alayne muttered, confused. Zerith finished tying off the bandage and then began working on his own hand. Alayne helped him, following his instructions carefully. “I’m saying that we have to stop waiting around on the government in Silvermoon to save us and start saving ourselves,” he replied once his own bandage was tied off. Alayne stared at her brother, confused. “I’ve been mulling this over for the past few days. I didn’t want to say anything until I’d thought on it more. We need to return to Silvermoon…” “You think telling them ourselves will help?” “No. We need to return to Silvermoon, gather up our own army, and then smash Deatholme into the ground.” “Gather up our own army? That sounds almost like treason. You know what the magisters do to those they consider traitors…” “It’s not treason,” Zerith explained. “We will first, of course, need to scout the area ourselves and come up with a plan. Then, we spread word that we’re looking for volunteers to come and help us. If we get enough people, we can go in and bring Dar’khan to justice.” “What if we just infiltrated his base, disguising ourselves like we did today?” “I have considered that. I don’t think it will work. The government isn’t sitting on its hands for no reason. I’m sure they’ve tried that very tactic already and had it fail. Such a failure would put Dar’khan on high alert and make it nearly impossible for us to succeed in that method. No, we’re going to have to be a little more direct. And, for that, we’re going to need a group of highly-motivated volunteers who are willing to go in and smash things up.” “That…that actually sounds like a great idea,” Alayne admitted, awed by the plan. “And, it would help our people in their negotiations with the Horde. I’ve heard from Jez’ral that even with Sylvanas arguing for us, the Warchief isn’t too keen on the idea of accepting a people who can’t even secure their own homeland. After all, he does have the trolls there as a charity case already.” “Then it’s settled?”

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“It is as far as I’m concerned,” she laughed. “We’ll go south to scout Deatholme tomorrow. Once we’re done there, we’ll return to Silvermoon to gather our own forces.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne and Zerith stood up before a milling crowd at the far end of the Silvermoon bazaar. The day was drawing to a close and the merchants were beginning to close up their carts and shops in anticipation of returning home for the evening. Still, plenty of people were gathering to hear the pair speak. Alayne prayed that the city’s guardians – magisters and Blood Knights – would not break up their gathering as they had so many others. Of course, Alayne and Zerith were only discussing something that would aid the sin’dorei people. Others had been arguing against the government. She hoped that any patrols passing through would see that clearly enough. Throughout the day, the pair had passed through Silvermoon, speaking with newcomers and residents. Word had spread beyond them and news of their hopes to gather a force and reclaim the rest of Quel’Thalas brought more eager and curious listeners. When she stopped by to try to enlist other warlocks, Jez’ral had been bemused by her passion. He’d refused to join her, citing his duties in Silvermoon, but had wished her luck. He’d also let her borrow some of his personal spellbooks to study so she could further increase her powers. Zerith touched Alayne on the shoulder and shared a look with her. The crowd had started to settle down and were watching the pair attentively. Alayne drew a deep breath and then raised her voice so that everyone could hear. “Hear me,” she called out, raising her hands so that the rest of the crowd would fall silent. “The Ghostlands must be retaken. My brother and I,” she reached out, touching Zerith on the shoulder, “have discovered how Deatholme might be retaken. We’re seeking volunteers to join us in putting an end to his usurpation of our land and to bring him to justice!” “Isn’t that the army’s job?” someone in the crowd called out. “Were they not rightfully occupied with guarding our city and our homes against the Scourge, it would be,” the priest answered. “But, we cannot ask them to lend their alreadyovertaxed strength to this cause. It is all that the army, the Farstriders, and the Blood Knights,” he added, bowing politely towards one of a pair of Blood Knights who had joined the crowd, “can do to protect the areas we have reclaimed. Advancing and retaking new areas must fall to those of us who have returned.” “It is not just the army, or the Farstriders, or the Blood Knights, or, indeed, any organization’s task to guard and rebuild Quel’Thalas,” Alayne argued. Her eyes sparkled with passion as she made her points. “It is a task that belongs to all of us. Join us and let us help carry this heavy burden instead of waiting around for others to do what we can do ourselves!” The crowd erupted in applause and several people began pushing forward, eager to offer themselves as volunteers to the cause. One of them was the Blood Knight whom Zerith had spotted in the crowd. His partner, a young elven woman with jet black hair, rolled her eyes and turned on her heel to leave. The Blood Knight made his way through the crowd of volunteers and, seeing that Alayne was being swarmed by them, smiled with amusement. “Not all of the Blood Knights are too busy to take on Dar’khan,” he said. His emerald green eyes glowed brightly with happiness and a hint of something else. “I offer myself to your cause.” “Thank you…” she grinned, letting the pause stretch out. “You are?” she asked at last. “Ger’alin Sunrage.” “Alayne Dawnrunner,” she laughed, offering her hand. He took it in his own and lifted it to his lips. She chuckled and pulled it back, “Such chivalry,” she said lightly. “I’m impressed.” 24


“I’ll be impressed if we can get these people organized,” the priest said. “Zerith Lightbinder,” he introduced himself. “I’m hoping that you learn more about tactics than the little my sister and I have managed to scrape together.” “Tactics, logistics, strategy,” Ger’alin replied, “I’ve studied them all and put them in practice against the ogres of Dustwallow Marsh.” “Good, good. Alayne? What should we do?” “Everyone!” Alayne called out loudly. She was being overwhelmed by the crowd still moving to offer its services. Ger’alin reached out and grasped her around the waist, lifting her up on his shoulder so she could see and be heard. She swayed and then chuckled quietly, her mirth sending a pleasant vibration through Ger’alin’s shoulder and supporting arm. “Meet us in Tranquillien in three days if you want to join in the battle,” she told the crowd. Ger’alin waited until most of the gathering had begun to disperse before setting her back down on her feet. “Thank you,” she said graciously. “But, next time, give me some warning. I’m not fond of heights.” The Blood Knight laughed and nodded in agreement. “I will go ask leave of my duties to accompany you. When will you be setting out? This evening or tomorrow morning?” “Tomorrow morning,” Zerith answered for both of them. “If we set out this minute, we’d still be well after midnight getting to the inn.” “Then I will meet you at the gates of the city in the morning,” Ger’alin promised. “I assume you’ve scouted the area around Deatholme?” Zerith nodded. “Good. We will discuss your plan and if I have anything to offer, I will let you know.” Bowing again to both of them, the Blood Knight departed. “I can’t believe we got one of the Blood Knights to support us,” Alayne whispered in shock. She stared after Ger’alin, a smile of amazed respect on her face. “He seems quite nice as well. I’d heard the Blood Knights were worse than the upper ranks of the magisters.” “He seems nice enough,” Zerith agreed. “Now, let’s go back and get some rest. I have a feeling that fellow will be waiting for us at the first crack of dawn.” ~*~*~*~ True to his word, Ger’alin was waiting for them at the gates of the city at the crack of dawn. The three took the road south to Tranquillien. Ger’alin was an easy traveling companion. He was skilled with weapons of all sorts though his abilities with the magic favored by the Blood Knights were less than stellar. Alayne was amused that the man could barely manage to draw in magical energies, nevermind wielding them as most Blood Knights did. He seemed content with his weapons skills, leaving magic to the others. During the days while they waited on the rest of the volunteers to make their way south, the three put their heads together, planning and refining the assault. Ger’alin was impressed by the maps, sketches, and notes they had put together. He shed light on a few tactical maneuvers that would be helpful. He and Zerith spent the better part of an afternoon scanning the area, watching and timing patrols and intervals, and then altering their plans to suit the new knowledge. By the time the last day dawned, Alayne felt as if she had known the brown-haired paladin just as long as she had known Zerith. “Quite a crowd we’ve managed to draw,” the priest said mid-morning on the day where they would begin their assault. “It’s more than sufficient for what we plan,” Ger’alin nodded as he pulled his waistlength ponytail over his shoulder and tucked it into his belt. Two thick locks of hair fell down the side of his face, too short to remain in the tie. He rubbed his jaw as he studied the crowd, wondering how best to break them into divisions. When Alayne stepped out of the inn, the

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crowd began applauding, remembering her speech. The warlock blushed and glanced at Ger’alin and Zerith. The two men nodded in support. “Thank you all for coming,” she said, her voice carrying over the babble of the crowd. “We will be assigning you to teams and giving each group an assignment to carry out. When we are ready, we will finish the preparations that should help to hide us from the look-outs and will press south towards Deatholme at sunset.” The crowd murmured in assent as Zerith and Ger’alin began making their way through, speaking with each person to get a gauge of their abilities and then assigning them according to the strategy they had devised. This took several hours during which Alayne worked with the Apothecaries to finish the batch of potions that would temporarily render them invisible to the eyes of the Scourge. Once the final preparations were made and everyone understood their place in the plan, they donned the dark cloaks the Forsaken and the guards had helpfully provided, drank down the foul-tasting brew, and then began walking towards Deatholme. As dusk settled on the dark forests of the Ghostlands, the group made its way from the road and to the Dead Scar. The Scourge sentinels were quickly slain before they could spot, let alone alert their masters to the presence of the attackers. Zerith and Ger’alin stayed close to Alayne, both to protect her and to provide support. Once their group had taken control of the great stone gateway overlooking the Dead Scar, the crowd began moving through, sweeping down on the complex and seizing the different ziggurats and outposts. Ger’alin, Alayne, and Zerith led their group to the main cathedral, a twisted structure that resembled a mockery to the shrines of the sin’dorei, and began their assault. Zerith watched his sister closely as she hurled her spells as the guards set on the cathedral. She seemed almost overwhelmed with outrage at seeing elven traitors and undead fighting against the reclamation of Deatholme. Her rage shone clearly through her blazing eyes. Her face was twisted in disgusted hatred as she and the others slaughtered the skeletal watchmen and pressed into the keep. At the lowest level of the interior, Dar’khan himself and his two most trusted lieutenants were waiting. They seemed unsurprised at the attack and confident that they would not only win, but would turn the entire army against Silvermoon. For a moment, Alayne seemed too terrified to carry on her part in the assault. Zerith reached towards her with concern and even Ger’alin eyed her in askance. The woman stood as if hearing something from her past that frightened her and turned her bowels to water. Then, her expression changed to one of dread resolve and she blasted out with her strongest spells, catching Dar’khan in the chest with a bolt of shadow and flame. The others sprang to the attack and, within moments, Dar’khan and his trusted lieutenants were dead. “It’s over,” Ger’alin gasped, sounding both surprised and confident. “Deatholme belongs to the sin’dorei once more.” “Yes,” Alayne agreed, still out of breath from the battle. “Justice has been served.” ~*~*~*~ Once the team who had killed Dar’khan emerged from the cathedral, the rest of the battle went smoothly. Each tower and ziggurat, if not taken already, was soon under the control of the volunteers from Silvermoon. Searching each building room-by-room, they eradicated the Scourge and the necromancers. Priests and mages studied the cauldrons in the courtyard, arguing over how best to neutralize their noxious contents. Scanning the area, Zerith felt pride in what he and the others had accomplished. Though all were reluctant to leave the scene of so great a victory, eventually the chill barrenness of the ground and the pervasive stench of rot and decay drove the force back to 26


Tranquillien. Ger’alin carried the grisly bag with Dar’khan’s head in it, having been the one to remove the proof of their victory with his own blade. Zerith had placed a preservation spell around it so that it would not decay too much before they returned to Silvermoon. At Tranquillien, the entire populace was out and beginning the celebrations as soon as Ger’alin lifted the head out of the bag, showing the proof that Deatholme had been reclaimed. The festivities continued well past dawn when the three leaders of the gathering took to their beds with fatigue. Early the next afternoon, the entire gathering reconvened and began the trek back to Silvermoon, arriving early in the evening. Somehow, word had reached the city ahead of the gathering and the guards formed an escort, bringing Alayne, Zerith, and Ger’alin to the Sunfury Spire where the Regent-Lord of Quel’Thalas stood finishing up the day’s business. When they reached the Spire, Ger’alin took a step back to rejoin the crowd. Alayne paused, glanced over her shoulder, and started to motion for the others to join her and Zerith inside the spire. “No, Alayne,” Ger’alin said, smiling proudly. “This honor belongs to you and Zerith. It was the two of you who worked so hard to bring us together and focus us on ridding the Ghostlands of Dar’khan. Without your leadership and tenacity, that traitor would still be fouling the world with his presence.” Alayne nodded in humility and gratitude. Taking the sack from the Blood Knight, she and Zerith entered the spire. “You seek an audience with me? I do not recall hearing of an appointment,” Lord Lor’themar said, his annoyance plain, as the two elves made their obeisance. “Forgive us for disturbing you, my Lord,” Zerith said, “but we bring news from the Ghostlands.” “News of Dar’khan,” Alayne quickly interjected, seeing that Lord Lor’themar was about to order them out. Intrigue replaced irritation on the leader’s visage. Hastily, the warlock pulled the traitor’s head from the bag, holding it up for Lord Lor’themar to see clearly. “Now that’s one face I was not expecting to see so soon. This is quite good news, in more ways than you can imagine. Did the two of you manage this on your own?” “No, my Lord,” Zerith explained. “We led a group of our people into Deatholme and together we all helped bring Dar’khan to justice. Alayne and I merely come on behalf of our forces.” “I see. Modest as well as daring. Please wait here a moment. I will have some business for you to attend to as the leaders of the expedition that killed Dar’khan,” Lor’themar said as he entered a side room. Several minutes later, he emerged with a sealed letter. “There were doubts about our capabilities among our potential new allies. Of what use could we be to them when perceived as unable to deal with our problems at home? This,” he said, pointing to Dar’khan’s head which now lay atop the bag it had been in, “changes everything. No longer will our power be questioned. We’ll be able to join the Horde as equals. Take this letter,” he indicated the letter in his hand, “to Sylvanas, ruler of the Forsaken. She’s already on our side but the news of Dar’khan’s death will be music to her ears. Prepare for a long trip, Alayne and Zerith. If all goes well, she will send you to Orgrimmar. Guards!” he barked, “Take this head and hang it from the gates of our city as a warning to anyone else who might think to side with the Scourge against us.” Tucking Lord Lor’themar’s letter into one of her pouches, Zerith and Alayne bowed their way out of the Regent-Lord’s presence. Returning to the crowd gathered outside the spire, they told the others of their mission to journey to Undercity and speak with the leader of the Forsaken. Ger’alin nodded and several others chose to join them. It was a smaller, yet still sizeable, group that made its way to the Orb of Translocation that connected Silvermoon and Undercity. 27


As Alayne and Zerith touched the Orb, thoughts of Sylvanas filled the young woman’s heart with dread. “You can never go home again,” the humans were often wont to say, she thought to herself. Does the same hold true for seeing a childhood hero once grown to adulthood? ~*~*~*~ It was late evening before the two responsible for the assault against Deatholme were able to request an audience with the Banshee Queen. Her assistants told Zerith and Alayne to take rooms at one of the inns in the Royal Quarter and await the summons there. Surprised to find an inn that catered to the living in a city that was little more than a tomb, the pair took the last room available and then sought out something for supper. They came across several of their comrades, including Ger’alin. The Blood Knight seemed to have found his element in the War Quarter of the city and was mixing and laughing with warriors among the Forsaken and the other Horde races before much time had passed. Alayne paused and watched as Ger’alin demonstrated a move he’d picked up fighting ogres in Dustwallow Marsh. She envied the ease with which he made friends among strangers. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shop that demanded her attention. Entering it and making a few small purchases, she hurried back to the inn where a messenger waited for her. The messenger told her that she and her brother would be expected before the Dark Lady in the morning. Thanking him for his time, Alayne hurried up to her room. “What’s the rush?” Zerith asked, poking his head out of his own room. He’d heard her racing up the stairs. “A messenger just came by a few minutes ago…” “I know,” she said, cutting him off. “I just spoke to him myself. Do you still have that pendant we found?” “Yes,” he nodded, patting his belt pouch. “Why, do you want it?” “No,” Alayne said, shaking her head. “Keep it. We’ll give it to her when we present Lord Theron’s letter to her tomorrow.” “That sounds like a good idea,” Zerith muttered, a yawn cracking his jaws. Alayne, infected by the yawn, did the same. Zerith repeated her yawn and soon the two were giggling when not yawning as they passed it back and forth. “It’s been a long day,” Zerith said at last. “I am going to get some sleep. What’s that?” he asked, pointing to a small book Alayne had pulled from her belt pouch. “Oh this?” she asked. “It’s a journal. I’m thinking of keeping one that chronicles our beginnings and our journeys. So much was lost when the Scourge overran our lands. More than just lives and possessions. Memories were lost. But with this,” she said, waving the book, “memories will last.” Zerith smiled and nodded in understanding. “Try not to make me sound too silly,” he requested. She followed her brother into the room they were forced to share. Zerith quickly washed his face and hands and then settled onto his bed. Within moments, he was sound asleep. Alayne set her journal on the desk, mulled over her thoughts for a while, checked to see that Zerith did truly sleep, and then, at last, lifted the quill, dipped it in the ink jar, and began writing.

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Chapter Two: The Mysteries of Silverpine

A

n insistent tapping awoke Alayne from her night’s sleep. Momentarily confused, she wondered who could be seeking her this early in the morning. Memory rushed in suddenly and she jerked out of bed, almost falling flat on her face as she tangled her feet in the bedding. Taking a moment to compose herself and ensure that all of her parts were still attached and not entangled with the sheets, she opened the door a crack. Zerith stood waiting for her in the hallway, his hand raised to rap her door again. “Good morning,” he smiled. “Good morning,” Alayne returned, her voice still thick with sleep. “I see that I caught you a bit early. I received word that we are to see the Lady Sylvanas later rather than earlier this morning. I just wanted to see if you would like to have some breakfast and take a tour of Undercity with me to pass the time,” Zerith said sheepishly. “That sounds like a good idea,” Alayne said, a yawn widening her jaws. “Just give me a few minutes to get dressed.” “I’ll meet you in the common room with a bowl of porridge.” Alayne smiled sleepily and closed the door. Stretching from her toes to her fingertips, she shook off sleep and quickly dressed herself in her best robes. Glancing at her journal, she tucked it away neatly with the rest of her belongings and checked to see that her inkwell was securely sealed with wax before placing it in the bag as well. She then strode across the room to the wash stand and mirror across from her bed. Pouring the lukewarm water into the basin, Alayne quickly rinsed her mouth and laved her face. Returning to her bag, she took out her ivory comb and began brushing out her hair. She stopped for a moment, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Startled, she realized her own parents would have a hard time recognizing her now. Her once fair skin had taken on a distinctive reddish tint, making her a “blood elf” in more than just name. Her blue eyes had changed color. Instead, they glowed a strong and bright green – an indication of her ability to draw magic from fel sources. Her hair was all that remained the same; straight, trimmed to half-way between her jaw and shoulders, and honey-colored, like her mother’s had been. With a sigh, Alayne patted her hair into place, smoothed her dark robes over her hips, and left the room, satisfied that she looked acceptable. “Over here,” Zerith called out to her from across the common room. He sat at a round table finishing a bowl of porridge with a muffin. Another bowl sat to his left. On his right sat a female Forsaken who glanced up at Alayne as she approached. “This is Callie, Alayne.” “Good morning,” Alayne said, extending her hand to the once-human woman. “Greetings,” Callie replied, her voice harsh and gravelly. “Callie was just telling me that we should head over to the Sepulcher in Silverpine if our duties permit,” Zerith explained. “It seems that the denizens of Dalaran are making a nuisance of themselves down there.” “Indeed,” Callie affirmed in her rough voice, “they cause no end of problems with their constant incursions on our land. If anyone could help drive them off, they’d be richly rewarded.” 29


The conversation drifted while Alayne finished her breakfast. By the time she was through, she and Zerith were up to date on the goings-on of the inhabitants of Dalaran and of Arugal, a rogue member of the Kirin Tor. Callie mentioned that the Gilneans were still locked behind the Greymane wall. Apparently the Forsaken were watching for any sign that the erstwhile member of the Alliance would spring out over their southernmost border. “We will be more than happy to help out,” Alayne said, standing and stepping away from the table, “but for now, we have an audience with the Lady Sylvanas to prepare for.” “I know,” Callie said, “and if you’d like to have a guided tour of our city while you wait, I’d be happy to take you.” “That would be most appreciated,” Alayne replied. “Zerith and I had a difficult time figuring out the lay of the land.” “I can imagine,” the undead laughed, “Undercity takes getting used to. Many of us who live here still get lost from time to time.” Callie stood up and Zerith followed her. The three left the inn, Callie leading the way. “First of all,” she said, her raspy voice taking on a lilt, “welcome to Undercity. Built beneath the ruins of the capitol of Lordaeron, Undercity is home to those of us who call ourselves ‘Forsaken.’ The Dark Lady, Sylvanas Windrunner, is our leader. Now, down there,” she said, gesturing to a structure that thrust up from the center of the area, “is the bank. This here is the inn. If you’ll just follow me down this walkway, I’ll take you around the outer ring where most of our city’s official business is performed.” The trio descended the dark stone walkway and left the central area, entering a foreboding, closed-in corridor. “This,” Callie said, gesturing around her, “leads to the outer ring. The outer ring is divided into four quarters: the Apothocarium and the Magic District, the Royal Quarter, the Rogue’s Quarter, and the War Quarter. Your audience with Lady Sylvanas will take place in her official chambers in the Royal Quarter. If you really want to get on her good side, ask about working with the Royal Apothecary Society. It’s a group she founded and is rather proud of. While their primary mission is to develop a way to counter the Lich King’s plague, they also study many other things related to herbalism and alchemy.” “That sounds interesting,” Zerith said. “I rely on the Light for its healing powers, but sometimes using it is overkill. My mother and second sister were both known for their knowledge of herbal remedies.” “Then you should definitely look into the Society,” Callie said enthusiastically. “Come on, I’ll take you to the Apothocarium first. We’ll just go through the outer ring from there and then I’ll show you the sights top-side.” As the three wandered through Undercity, Alayne fought to hide her distaste and disgust at the sights, sounds, and smells. A foul odor of decay hung in the air, dispelled only by the occasional drafts of cold air that found their way through the ruins above down to the city below. There was a canal of noxious green water, brackish and stagnant, that ran through the city. The buildings were nothing to stare at; mostly cobbled together out of ruins or built to resemble something that wouldn’t look out of place amongst the Scourge. Cold dampness made the city an unpleasant place to be out in the open. Alayne glanced around, wishing they could hasten on to the top-side of the city to be away from this depressing gloom. Something of her feelings must have been plain on her face because Callie and Zerith stopped their conversation suddenly when the woman rounded on Alayne, saying, “None of us can help it, elf.” Alayne blinked, taken aback. “It’s nothing to do with you; it’s this place,” she tried to explain. “Yes, I know. Do you think you’re the first one to come here and feel the way you do about us and our home? Believe me, those of us who were unfortunate enough to be struck down by the plague would love nothing more than to rebuild our city and homeland with its 30


former glory and light. But that’s not possible. Arthas destroyed any hope of that when he led this kingdom into destruction. The few of us who have managed to break away from his control have our hands full trying to hold his minions at bay while scratching out a bare existence in this ruined land. In a way, the gloom you’re feeling is just a small part of the gloom and despair all of us natives of Lordaeron feel whenever we wake up to our unnatural existence!” Alayne’s face heated with humiliation. “I meant nothing against you or any of the Forsaken,” she said, “and I apologize for any offense I’ve given.” Callie shrugged, dismissively accepting Alayne’s apology. The three continued their tour through the other three quarters of the city, Alayne doing her best to look interested in the surroundings. Soon, they returned to the central part of the city, heading towards the elevators that would take them to the top-side. “This sarcophagus is all that remains of the late King Terenas,” Callie said as the three entered the room from the elevators. “No one knows who found his remains or how. Just one day people came in here and saw this sarcophagus and that inscription.” The inscription read: “Here lies King Terenas Menethil II -- Last True King of Lordaeron. Great were his deeds -- long was his reign -- unthinkable was his death. ‘May the Father lie blameless for the deeds of the son. May the bloodied crown stay lost and forgotten.’” Alayne and Zerith knelt and bowed their heads at the foot of the sarcophagus. Neither could remember King Terenas, but both had had to live with the destruction wrought by his son. After a few moments of silent prayer for the poor man’s soul, the two rose, dusted their knees, and glanced around at Callie. The young woman stood in the doorway. She had not moved from her spot since pointing out the tomb to them. The expression on her face was one of deep sorrow and loss. “Forgive me,” she whispered, “but this is never easy for me. I remember the King in his latter days. I remember the day he was murdered there,” she pointed to another doorway, “on the steps of his very throne. It was the last day I lived. The next day, I awoke as one of the Lich King’s minions; completely subservient to his will. The tainted grain, you see. The King was a good man; a good father. My parents named me in honor of the princess Calia.” Taking a deep breath, Callie turned her back on the room, “It’s not easy for any of us who lived here. Most of us pass through this room as quickly as we can. Our lives are over; our mortality gone. But the past leaves wounds all its own.” Without another word, she strode back to the elevator. Alayne and Zerith hurried after her. The trip back down was made in absolute silence; any offers of comfort the two sin’dorei made were brushed aside. “Head to the Royal Quarter,” Callie said. “It should be time for you to have your audience with the Dark Lady soon. I’ll meet you back at the inn afterwards.” The two elves descended to the outer ring and, following the signs and their memory, found their way to the Royal Quarter. Glancing at each other just outside the long corridor leading to the Lady Sylvanas’s chambers, they gathered their courage and strode down the hall. Moments later, they stood in the dark, chill chamber that was the Dark Lady’s official chamber. “What business do you have here?” one of the many banshee courtiers asked. “We bring word from Lord Lor’themar, Regent Lord of Quel’Thalas, concerning Dar’khan,” Zerith said smoothly, trying to hide his nervousness. Alayne quickly produced the sealed letter from her pocket. “Very well,” the banshee said, a faint sighing echo of her words chasing after them, “I remember you. The Dark Lady will be with you shortly. Wait there,” she said, indicating a place near the stairs leading up to the dais where Sylvanas and the other Forsaken officials stood. Alayne quickly checked herself, smoothing out tiny wrinkles on her robe. Satisfied, 31


she then grabbed Zerith by his shoulders, smoothing his long red hair back behind his shoulders and straightening his robes. Zerith smiled tolerantly, “Am I decent yet, mother?” he whispered. Alayne grinned back at him and deliberately pulled her hands down to her sides, keeping them from fidgeting by an effort of sheer will. Moments later, one of the banshee attendants atop the dais floated over to the top of the steps and motioned for Alayne and Zerith to ascend and present their business. “My lady,” Alayne began, bending down on one knee, her head bowed. Zerith followed suit, making his obeisance. “We bring word from the Ghostlands concerning Dar’khan, the traitor. Lord Lor’themar explains the situation in this letter to you,” she continued, lifting the letter up for the Lady Sylvanas to take. The Banshee Queen plucked the letter from Alayne’s hands, broke the seal, and began reading. Motioning for the two to rise, Sylvanas smiled; a cold smile that did not reach her lifeless, unfeeling eyes. “It is done then,” the Dark Lady said, her voice hissing and mournful at the same time. “The foul traitor got what he deserved,” she read further, her eyebrows rising as if she were impressed, “You did this yourself? An impressive feat that proves that your race remains worthy. I see that Lor'themar has additional news that will greatly improve his relations with Thrall,” she concluded, motioning for an attendant. “I haven't lost any love for my homeland or its people, as you know. I've fought tooth and nail for Silvermoon to be allowed a place beside Undercity and Orgrimmar at the negotiating table. This should silence any opposition. Take this letter to Thrall in Orgrimmar. As leader of the Horde he will have the final say on accepting your race's pledge.” The attendant returned, bearing a sigil ring, wax, and a candle. The Lady Sylvanas used the candle to drip melting wax onto the letter. She then pressed her sigil into the cooling wax. “There,” she said, handing the letter back to Alayne, “I've added my own seal to the letter as a personal endorsement.” “All of Silvermoon and the sin’dorei thank you for your kind endorsement and support, Lady Sylvanas,” Alayne said, curtseying deeply. Behind her Zerith bowed from the waist while surreptitiously reaching into his pocket and removing the pendant that he and Alayne had found. “One more moment of your time, my Lady,” he said apologetically, stepping forward as Alayne stepped back. Lifting his hand, he presented the pendant to the leader of the Forsaken. The Banshee Queen’s eyes widened with shock as she looked at his offering. “What's that you have there? That necklace looks somehow familiar. Give it here!” she demanded, ripping the pendant out of Zerith’s hand. “It can't be! After all this time, I thought it was lost forever,” she said, her voice full of wonder. For long moments, the former Ranger-General of Silvermoon stood staring at the pendant in her hand, her gaze unfocused. With a shudder, she came back to herself, glaring at Alayne and Zerith who, in fear of that dread gaze, took an involuntary step backwards. “You thought this would amuse me? Do you think I long for a time before I was the queen of the Forsaken? Like you, it means nothing to me, and Alleria Windrunner is a long dead memory!” she cried out, throwing the pendant to the ground and turning her back on the two elves. “You may now remove yourselves from my presence,” she said coldly. Shooting each other horrified looks, Alayne and Zerith bowed their way out of the Lady’s presence. As they reached the bottom step, they could hear her haunting voice singing out the warning cry of their people: “Shindu sin’dorei, shindu fallah na.” After the two had left the chamber, Sylvanas reached down and gently picked up the necklace, tears filling her eyes as she cradled it in her hands. ~*~*~*~

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“That could have gone better,” Zerith muttered once he and Alayne emerged from the Royal Quarter. “I would have thought she’d have been happier about regaining a keepsake from better days.” “You said it yourself, Zerith,” Alayne sighed, “the Lady is greatly changed.” “I did say that, didn’t I?” “Yes, you did. Now, let’s get back to the inn and just put this little incident behind us.” “That sounds like a good idea,” he agreed quickly. The two hurried back to the inn where Callie was waiting for them. “How did your audience with the Dark Lady go?” she asked, looking curiously at their twin expressions of mortification. “It could have gone better,” the two said in unison. Callie winced in sympathy. “I forgot to mention that our Queen has a bit of a temper. So, I suppose that Silverpine is looking pretty tempting about now?” the Forsaken said hopefully. “That sounds like a good idea,” the two sin’dorei said, speaking again in unison. Laughing, the trio made their way back up to the top of the city and took the road down to Silverpine Forest. ~*~*~*~ The forest was eerily silent as the three made their way down the road. Alayne and Zerith glanced around, looking for sign of birds or other small creatures. There seemed to be none. “This may be a forest,” Alayne thought to herself, “but it’s not a forest at all like what I know of them.” Her reverie was broken by Callie. “We’ve established a base here in Silverpine that we call the Sepulcher. We should probably head there to see what the latest news in the region is.” “Lead on,” Zerith said, his unease at the unnatural stillness of the forest stiffening his speech. Callie nodded, seeming to understand, and continued down the road. The three soon crossed a covered bridge which Callie mentioned meant they were close to the Sepulcher. “What in the Light is that?” Zerith said, jumping back in fright. Alayne and Callie glanced over to where he was staring. When Alayne saw what had given her adopted brother pause, she nearly bolted. “That,” Callie said, her cynicism showing clearly in her raspy voice, “is a bastard spawn of Arugal, member of the Kirin Tor.” “Whatever it is, it looks like something only a twisted mind would dream of,” Alayne muttered. Zerith nodded his agreement. “‘Twisted,’” Callie said, seeming to taste the word, “you could call that bastard ‘twisted.’ His ‘creations’ plague the forest, mauling and killing those unlucky enough to attract their attention. They do generally stay away from the road, though. The patrols from Undercity do what they can to drive those creatures off. In case you’re wondering, we call them ‘sons of Arugal.’” Cautiously, on the lookout for any more sons of Arugal, the three continued on to the Sepulcher. They soon arrived and walked over to a Forsaken man who stood in the midst of the graveyard. Zerith and Alayne walked between the graves, stepping carefully so they would not walk across any of them. Respect for the restful dead was ingrained deeply in both sin’dorei. Callie seemed somewhat amused at their efforts; she stomped across the graves with callous indifference to what their inhabitants might think. “Greetings, Dalar,” she said, hailing her fellow Forsaken. “What word on the goingson from Dalaran and Shadowfang Keep?” 33


“Ah, good afternoon, Callie. Word is the same,” he rasped. “The mages of Dalaran continue to plague us. No doubt they are assisting that fool Arugal in whatever madness he’s cooking up now.” “Hm,” Callie sighed. “Well, then, since no one else seems to be doing it, I guess that my new friends and I will investigate the mages and Arugal for you. They are still confined to the south near the border with Hillsbrad, correct? Mostly in Ambermill and Pyrewood Village?” “The Deathguards have brought no word of a change in their dispositions,” Dalar hissed. “But I sense that they are planning something. There’s a feeling in the air.” “Then we’ll just have to go stop them, won’t we?” Zerith said with a smile. Callie and Dalar rounded on him; Callie trying to stifle a laugh and Dalar looking annoyed. “Yes, you will go have to stop them, priest,” he spat. “Try not to break a nail while getting about it.” Flushing with anger, Zerith stormed back down the road, heading south. Callie and Alayne shrugged at each other, shot annoyed glances at Dalar, and hurried to catch up with Zerith. “He’s really in a foul mood now, isn’t he?” Callie asked as they jogged. Zerith’s long strides kept him ahead of the two girls with the distance growing. “No, he’s barreling down the road in anger because it’s fun,” Alayne said mockingly, a grin and a wink taking the sting out of her words. “It’s not just Dalar; the Dark Lady was rather short with us. Zerith must be taking it pretty hard. He did find her necklace, after all.” “Necklace?” “Yes, a necklace that the Lady’s sister, Alleria, had given her years ago. Zerith found it while we were clearing the Scourge out of Windrunner Village.” “Ah.” Zerith stopped suddenly, whipping around. The two girls almost ran into him. “I guess I should let you catch up to me if you’re going to talk about me,” he muttered, sounding annoyed. “Zerith,” Alayne sighed, reaching up and gently cupping his face in her hands. “Calm down. Yes, it’s been a rotten afternoon so far. Still, we can make that Dalar eat his words when we interfere with whatever plans the mages of Dalaran have in store for this land. Remember what you told me about the guards in Tranquillien before we killed Dar’khan?” “Alayne’s right,” Callie said enthusiastically, hoping to cheer Zerith. “We will make him eat his words. Not only about the mages of Dalaran, but about Arugal as well. If you two were able to take down Dar’khan, then this will be nothing at all.” “We didn’t take down Dar’khan alone, though,” Zerith muttered to himself. “We had help.” “We still have help. Let us send a messenger to Ger’alin asking him to bring some of our veterans from Deatholme here. I saw him hanging around the War Quarter in Undercity.” “I have a feeling I’ll say this a lot,” Zerith laughed, “but that sounds…” “…like a good idea?” Alayne finished for him, her eyes twinkling. ~*~*~*~ “Is this everyone?” Zerith asked, glancing over the two dozen Forsaken and sin’dorei who had answered his call. The group was gathered near the border of Tirisfal and Silverpine. In the distance, Forsaken guards and attendants could be seen constructing a giant Wickerman while others looked on. “This is everyone,” Ger’alin responded, speaking for the group. “What is our assignment?” 34


“Much like in the Ghostlands, a mischief-maker is causing problems for the inhabitants of Silverpine,” Alayne began. “However, another group is also making a nuisance of itself; a group some of us were once aligned with: the mages of Dalaran. Since we have enough people, we plan to take on both groups simultaneously. We will split our forces in half. The first half, led by myself and Callie,” she indicated the Forsaken woman, “will storm Ambermill and disrupt whatever plans the mages have there. This group will consist largely of magic users since we’ll need to investigate arcane activities.” “The second group, consisting of everyone else,” Zerith laughed, “will accompany me to the town of Pyrewood. There we’ll rout out the humans who are aiding this fellow, Arugal. Once both towns have been dealt with, our forces will reassemble on the road outside of Pyrewood and then we will launch our final attack against Shadowfang Keep and Arugal, the Keep’s master.” The gatherers nodded; the plan was understood. “Very well,” Alayne said, “we will assign you a group and then make our way south to the villages near the Hillsbrad border. We will begin our assault at sundown.” ~*~*~*~ The day was failing as the two groups split up, each heading to its own objective. Zerith and Alayne embraced, wishing each other luck, and followed their groups on. “He’ll be well,” Callie whispered to Alayne as the two led their group towards Ambermill. “Zerith is a gifted leader and tactician.” “He is,” Alayne agreed with a sigh, “but he’s all I have in this world.” “Oh,” Callie said, a seeming understanding dawning on her face. “No, it’s not like that,” Alayne explained hastily. “We adopted each other; he’s my brother.” “Ah. Well, let’s focus on our objective, then. It seems that one of my people is coming to report something to us,” she said, pointing to an undead mage who had hiked up his robes and was running towards the two women. “Some of us scouted ahead and came upon a camp just outside of Ambermill,” the mage reported, his dull voice heated with excitement. “There was a crate there; Ambermill has obviously been receiving a significant amount of reinforcement and supplies from Hillsbrad. Anyway, we found this,” he pulled a mysterious looking pendant from his pocket with a flourish. “Davril, who was a low-ranking member of the Kirin Tor before the Plague struck him, recognized it as an artifact used by the more powerful members of the Kirin Tor to channel their energies.” “Indeed, it is a powerful artifact,” Davril said. Alayne and Callie jumped; they had not heard him approach. “And, if the mages of Dalaran are sending items like this here, it means that something rather large is in the offing. And, though it may sound presumptuous, I believe I know what it is.” “And it would be?” Alayne asked, folding her arms and trapping her hands at her sides to keep from snatching the pendant away from the scout. The arcane power emanating from it called to her soul. “Ambermill lies in the midst of a long dormant ley energy node. The Kirin Tor never bothered to try to revive it before because they had all of the energy they needed at Dalaran. However, with the loss of their fair city, the mages seek more energy. Thus, it is likely that they are planning to revive the node here and tap into it to enhance their power in preparation for launching a strike north. This is no doubt some part of an Alliance plot to take back Lordaeron.” “We must alert the Dark Lady immediately!” Callie hissed. 35


“Indeed, we should,” Davril agreed smoothly, “but wouldn’t it be better to strike first, foil their plans, and then present her with the deed already done? From what I understand, the Lady is in a foul mood lately.” Alayne flushed and then cleared her throat. “Yes, let us continue on with our plans. In the course of our assault, we’ll look for more evidence to bolster your speculation, Davril. With that in hand, we’ll present it to the Dark Lady and hope that it lightens her humor. Recall the scouts,” she ordered. Within minutes, the scouting pairs had rejoined the main group. Alayne quickly brought them up to speed, presenting Davril’s theories to them. Most of the mages in the group nodded in agreement; it was likely that the former member of the Kirin Tor was right. “Let us continue with our assault, then,” Alayne said, wrapping up her briefing. “As you kill the intruders, search their bodies for pendants like the one Davril showed you. Taking them away will decrease our enemy’s power and, who knows but that a use for them can be found to aid our cause? The Dark Lady will surely reward those who hand her such a gift,” Alayne finished with a meaningful glance. The group fanned out, calling upon their talents and making quick work of the few guards patrolling the stone pathways outside of Ambermill. As night had fallen, most of the denizens of the village were asleep. The screams from the guards and the sounds of battle roused them to wakefulness, however, and Alayne and Callie were soon in the thick of the fighting, Alayne supplementing Callie’s swift dagger strokes with her own shadowy magic. The sin’dorei helped the Forsaken mages by draining the Dalaranians of their magical energies, preventing them from casting or dispelling any magical attacks launched against them. Before the twin moons reached their height in the inky night sky, Alayne and Callie called a halt to the assault, giving their group a chance to catch their breath, heal their wounds, and investigate the corpses of their enemies. “You were right,” Alayne said to Davril, “that makes fifteen pendants like the one the young man…” “Rinon,” Davril supplied the name of the scout who had brought the first pendant, “he’s my nephew,” the Forsaken explained. “Fifteen pendants like the one that Rinon found,” Alayne finished. “They were trying to revive the dormant ley node.” “They still are,” Davril said. He pointed to a large building behind a gate. “We’ve cleared the first part of the village and have probably cost them some vital power, but it looks like, if anything, they’ve stepped up efforts to revive the node. I can sense their spell-casting. Someone powerful is channeling in that building.” “How are we for an all-out assault against the main building?” Alayne asked Callie, who had been circulating amongst their forces, taking stock of their injuries and ability to continue the fight. “I think we’ve probably culled out most of their fighters,” Callie replied. “So, there are probably very few guards protecting the group in there. We’ll have to deal mostly with whoever is channeling in that building. On one hand, if they have to turn away from their casting to fight us, then we’ll at least be delaying them some, maybe making them rethink this whole idea.” “Should we send word to Zerith and his forces requesting assistance?” “No. I think we can do it ourselves. And, if we fail, we should be able to pull out in an orderly fashion and regroup with the others for another try.” “Then let’s proceed,” Alayne said with finality. The others gathered themselves together, shook off their weariness, and as one, the group moved on the building. Storming through the narrow doorways, they soon reached the main room where several mages stood guarding a man. The man was channeling energies so strong that even Alayne could sense 36


them. Drawing upon her anger and jealousy at being unable to wield the arcane, Alayne and her followers quickly overcame the arcane-wielding guardians and focused their attentions on the lone man left standing. He was soon overcome. The group then settled down on their haunches, taking what rest they could while Alayne, Callie, and Davril searched through the corpse’s belongings. “Hmph,” Davril snorted, “this was Ataeric. I remember him vaguely. He had a rare talent for detecting energy nodes. No wonder he was assigned here. We’ll take his staff with us,” he said, picking up the dead man’s staff. “I sense many energies trapped within it. This will be of benefit to our cause.” “Don’t get too far ahead of yourself,” Alayne sighed, knuckling her back. “We still have to put an end to Arugal. Come, let’s go see how Zerith’s forces are faring.” ~*~*~*~ Zerith paused for a moment’s silent prayer to the Light, hoping that Alayne would be safe in the coming battle. He disliked being parted from her, especially when she was headed into danger. With a sigh, he forced himself back to the present, telling himself that Alayne would be fine. “Your orders?” Ger’alin asked. The Blood Knight had been somewhat loathe to leave the others to their task. Still, he had admitted that his talents would be of greater use against Pyrewood than against a small village of mages. “Let’s hang back a bit. Send a few scouts up to see how many guards are stationed at the gates. It’s sundown, so most there should only be a few.” “Good call. You and you,” Ger’alin said, pointing to a couple of rogues who had accompanied him in the strike against Deatholme, “sneak up and report back to us how many guards are at the main gates and if there are any patrols through the town.” The pair nodded and left, moving silently in the shadows. Zerith smiled to himself; if he was having difficulty watching them, then the town guards, who didn’t know what to look for, would fare even worse. “And now we wait,” Zerith sighed, motioning for the rest of the group to settle back until the scouts returned. “If they’re not back within a half hour or so, we’ll know that our cover is blown and will retreat to wait until Alayne and Callie return.” “Waiting. The most important and most common job of a soldier,” Ger’alin quoted. “Who said that?” Zerith asked idly. “One of my commanders. He should know; his ‘waiting’ still has him stationed at Silvermoon.” The two men shared a chuckle, then settled down, their nerves frayed with impatience already. Just before Zerith was about to call a retreat, the two scouts returned. “There are two guards at the main gate and a single guard patrolling from the main gate to the back of the town. The guards seem to be expecting something, though.” “They didn’t spot you?” “No. We never got close enough for them to see us. We just watched from afar, counting the minutes out quietly for the patrol.” “Well then,” Zerith sighed, “let’s assume the worst anyway and proceed with caution. Advance,” he ordered the rest of the group. The party moved quickly and quietly through the late dusk. Once the town was within bowshot, Zerith signaled for the archers to prepare to fire. Then, waiting several moments for the next patrol to reach the main gate and turn back, Zerith gave the signal for the archers to let loose their missiles. The two guards went down quickly, arrows protruding from their chests. The archers’ shots had been true; the pair were dead before they hit the ground. 37


“Now!” Zerith hissed in a carrying whisper. His forces ran through the gate, engaging any townspeople they saw and drawing others out of their homes into the streets. The guards swarmed down upon the gathering, blades drawn. The battle was begun. Zerith hung back in the thick of his group, calling upon the Light to heal his comrades and protect them from the attacks of the guards and townspeople. The tide was turning against the humans of Pyrewood when, suddenly, the few survivors stopped fighting the undead and elves and began writhing. Zerith’s eyes opened wide in shock and horror as the humans transformed into monsters, very much like the son of Arugal he and the others had seen earlier that day. “What curse is on these people?” Ger’alin shouted, taking a step back from the guard he had been fighting. There was no time for anyone to answer before the townspeople shook themselves free of the last tendrils of confusion wrought by their transformation and pressed the attack again, using teeth and claw instead of weapons. “Fight on!” Zerith shouted, raising his staff and calling upon the Light to smite these cursed humans. Seeing his example, his forces rallied, shaking off their shock, and soon overcame the remnants of the town guard. “What in the Light was that?” one of the Forsaken fighters asked, his voice still shaking with disbelief as he prodded one of the monster’s corpses with his foot. “I don’t know,” Zerith said wearily, “but perhaps we’ll find some answers in the Keep,” he pointed up the hill to the foreboding structure overlooking the town. “For now, let’s comb through this village for clues or for anything that might be of use to us. In a few days, the humans in Hillsbrad will know what happened here and will be coming back, looking for revenge.” ~*~*~*~ “Zerith?” Alayne called out as she and Callie led their forces into the town. She saw signs of the carnage that had taken place; smears of blood staining the streets where corpses had been dragged outside the town to be burned. “Zerith?” she asked again, looking at one of the sin’dorei archers who had been with Zerith’s group. The archer pointed to the town hall and Alayne’s heart returned to her chest from where it had jumped in her throat. With a shuddering sigh of relief, she nodded to Callie who took over while Alayne went to find Zerith. “Fall out,” Alayne heard Callie order the group, “see what aid our fellows need. Then rest and wait for further orders.” Alayne didn’t hear the rest as her steps quickened, carrying her swiftly to the town hall. Once inside the main room, she ran over and nearly tackled Zerith with a wild embrace. Ger’alin chuckled and muttered something beneath his breath, amused at the woman’s excitement at seeing her brother after only a few hours’ separation. “I’m glad to see that you’re well too, Alayne,” the priest grinned as he regained his balance. “What did you learn in Ambermill?” Mockingly assuming a position of attention, Alayne began her debriefing, “We learned that the mages of Dalaran were attempting to revive a dormant ley energy node, probably in hopes of using it to bolster their powers preparatory to a strike against Lordaeron. We were able to put an end to that plan, however, and have already dispatched word to the Sepulcher requesting that Deathguards be stationed in Ambermill to prevent the humans from returning to try again. We were able to salvage several items that will be of great use to the Dark Lady…” “…and will hopefully win us back into her good graces?” Zerith said with a twinkle in his eyes. “The news here is not nearly so good; the town was easily taken. I suspect that 38


means that Arugal has kept the main force of his guards with him in the Keep. Taking the Keep will not be nearly as easy as the skirmishes this evening have been.” “And how did the skirmish here go?” “Well enough, though, what I’m learning about Arugal and this town has me about as frightened as I’ve ever been. The townspeople of Pyrewood were actually ‘worgen’ or wolfmen. They were not native to this world at all; Arugal summoned them here from Lightknows-where to help hold the Scourge at bay after the destruction of Dalaran. The townsfolk transformed into beasts right in front of our eyes, Alayne,” Zerith shuddered. “It is a sight I will never forget and would rather have never seen.” Alayne stroked Zerith’s shoulder, comforting him, her concern plain on her face. “Here’s a map of the Keep,” he said, his eyes still haunted, “it’s a twisting nightmare of a castle, something only a warped mind would imagine, let alone inhabit. The Keep used to belong to a Baron Silverlaine but there’s no record of what happened to him or how Arugal came to control the Keep.” “Zerith,” Alayne said, snapping him back to reality. “You need to rest. Let us all get a few hours of rest and then we’ll storm the keep at dawn.” ~*~*~*~ Zerith tossed and turned on his bed roll, unable to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see the humans transforming into monsters. He had thought the sight of the Scourge pillaging the Ghostlands and befouling the lands was the worst he had ever seen; this past evening had proven that to be the thinking of a lost innocent. Sighing, he turned on his side, willing himself to fall into the dark comfort of unconsciousness. No sooner did he close his eyes than they popped open again as a shadow fell across his vision. “Trouble sleeping?” Alayne whispered, sitting down beside him. “Yes,” he sighed, starting to sit up. Alayne put a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back down. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked softly, her green eyes shining with concern. “Not really,” he said flatly. “I’d like to forget about it, not relive it.” “I see,” Alayne murmured. Lifting her hand to his face, Alayne softly pulled his eyelids down. Grunting, Zerith tolerated her touch, closing his eyes and relaxing as she gently combed her fingers through his hair. The feel was soothing, taking him back to his childhood when his mother used to sit next to him, stroking his face and arm, helping to calm him after a nightmare. As Alayne began to hum a childhood lullaby, Zerith drifted off to sleep, the terrors of the past evening momentarily set aside. ~*~*~*~ Alayne sat absolutely still for several minutes after she heard the deep, even breaths that indicated that Zerith slept. Dawn was still several hours off; she did not want to accidentally wake him with a careless sound or movement. A smile crossed her face as she watched her adopted brother sleep. He looked so much younger asleep; the lines on his forehead caused by worries and cares he bore were smoothed out, the firmness of his jaw-line and shoulders was relaxed. Smiling sleepily, Alayne stifled a yawn and began to think of catching a few hours of sleep herself. Just then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone in the doorway. Motioning to them to be silent and stay where they were, Alayne stood up, careful to not make a sound, and tiptoed over to the door. Once they were in the hallway, Alayne relaxed. The person who had come for her was Callie. After getting a good look at Callie’s face, Alayne tensed up, all of her previous relaxation and peace of mind gone. 39


“What happened?” Alayne asked, squaring her shoulders for the blow. “We’ve been spotted by the creatures in the Keep. A few of our scouts got cocky and let themselves be seen.” “Oh no,” Alayne sighed. Callie shot her a look. “Well, then our options are to either run for dear life or to stand and fight.” “Yes; so which do we do?” Callie asked caustically. “No need to get angry at me, Callie,” Alayne said frostily. “We do neither. We take the fight to the Keep. The best defense is a strong offense. Send runners to the Sepulcher and Undercity requesting immediate reinforcement.” “Yes, sir,” Callie said, her sarcasm melting into humor. “Are you going to wake Zerith?” “No, he’s exhausted. Pick out a couple of men to stay here and guard him while he sleeps. The rest of us will storm the Keep as soon as we can get everyone rallied.” With a glance back to the room where Zerith lay, sleeping peacefully, Alayne sighed and turned to face the battle ahead. ~*~*~*~ Sunlight sparkling through the window woke Zerith. Bolting up from his blankets, he looked around, wondering if everyone else had also slept late. With a sigh, he stood up, straightened his robes about him, ran a quick hand through his sleep-tangled hair, and hurried out of the room. Two men sat in the hallway outside. They leapt to their feet when Zerith entered. “Why didn’t you wake me earlier?” the sin’dorei asked, exasperated. “We’ve probably missed our window of opportunity to launch a surprise attack. Now, let’s get moving!” The two traded glances. “Sir, the attack began hours ago. Alayne and Callie led everyone else to the Keep just after midnight.” Zerith almost fell on his face, doing a double-take. “What?” he asked, not certain he had heard correctly. As the pair explained the situation, Zerith’s fear and anger at himself grew. “So they just rounded everyone up, asked you two to stay here and babysit me, and then waltzed off in the night to give Arugal a piece of their minds?” he yelled. “And you let me sleep through it all? Has everyone lost their Light-forsaken minds?” he fumed. “Come with me; we’re joining in the attack. If anything’s happened to Alayne, I’ll…I’ll…oh just come on!” Zerith said angrily as he stormed out of the house. The town of Pyrewood was deserted, save for the three men. The only evidence of the previous night’s battle was the silence and a few shreds of cloth scattered about the town. The early morning dew had washed clean most of the blood staining the pavement stones on the streets and the bodies of the townspeople had all been taken outside the walls. A faint smell of smoke tinged the air, leftovers from the funeral pyres. Zerith noted the changes with only half a mind as he stalked down the street and out the gate, heading towards the Keep. His guards half-walked, half-trotted, to keep up with him. As the trio neared the Keep, the sound of steel clashing against steel could be heard singing through the air. The metallic song was often accompanied by the moans of the wounded and the dying. Fearful for his sister, Zerith began running through the halls of the keep, dodging past groups of sin’dorei and Forsaken who were finishing off worgen. With each step, his fear mounted to new heights when he did not see Alayne or Callie. “Alayne? Callie?” he called out as he raced through a mostly deserted courtyard. Leaving the courtyard, he ran through a kitchen, several twisting halls, and a large room with 40


rickety, wooden stairs and bridges strewn about it crazily. The bodies of many worgen and some kind of ghostly wolves littered the straw in this room. Near the top exit, some sin’dorei and Forsaken sat on their haunches, evidently catching their breath after a lengthy skirmish. Zerith ignored them, his legs pumping and his heart pounding as he ran past them, down a walkway, and up a tower. His oxygen-starved lungs forced him to stop before the first set of stairs leading up the tower, hunching him over as he took deep breaths, drawing life-giving air into his lungs. Behind him, he could hear the two guards running, trying to catch up. Zerith stayed where he was, allowing the pair to reach him. Just as he opened his mouth to tell them to follow, a blood-curdling scream of rage and despair rang through the air. “Who dares interfere with the Sons of Arugal?” The chill, hollow sound of a portcullis being raised followed the scream. Zerith began racing up the twisting stairways, his heart pounding faster than the sound of the clanking chains he heard above where a gate was being opened. With terror speeding his steps, Zerith hurried up the tower, reaching the top-most room in time to see Alayne, Callie, and a few other fighters engage a human archmage, The priest noted that Ger’alin was standing near Alayne, watching her with a mixture of annoyance and concern. Callie and a few of the fighters were mounting the stairs leading up to the human while Alayne and an undead mage remained below, channeling their spells. Alayne had summoned one of her demon slaves to help her, Zerith surmised quickly, noting that a voidwalker had appeared behind the archmage. The human was obviously insane, standing his ground calmly as if he were not about to be attacked by several warriors, a demon, and a pair of magic users. Zerith moved to join Alayne and the mage but stopped when, with a flash of light, Arugal teleported himself from his platform away to the other side of the room. “You, too, shall serve!” the human shrieked, casting a bolt of shadow at Alayne. “No!” Zerith screamed, calling on the Light to protect her. A shield sprang up around the sin’dorei woman, absorbing the archmage’s attack. With a quick glance and a smile, Alayne spotted Zerith but then quickly returned her attention to the fight. Zerith wasn’t sure how long it lasted, but, after what seemed to be hours, they finally managed to kill the insane archmage. After the battle was over, Zerith ran over to Alayne who wobbled unsteadily on her feet, exhaustion and her injuries trying to drag her into unconsciousness. Callie was not faring much better herself, but Zerith’s concern was focused on his adopted sister, the only family he had left. “Are you crazy?” he shouted at Alayne, grabbing her by the shoulders to steady her as well as reassure himself that she was, indeed, alive. “What were you thinking, leaving me behind like that?” “Good morning, Zerith,” Alayne said just before her knees buckled and her eyes rolled back in her head. Zerith caught her, preventing her from falling, and laid her gently on the ground. The outrage on his face made a stark contrast to the tenderness with which he quickly tended to Alayne’s wounds. Finishing with her and satisfied that she was resting, he turned with a sigh, glanced up at Callie, walked over to the Forsaken woman, and began healing her wounds. “When she wakes up, I am going to wring her neck,” he muttered. Callie snorted, trying to stifle a laugh.

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Chapter Three: A Celebration After Battle

A

layne drifted back to consciousness, feeling as if she were floating. She tried to stretch out, to wake further, but felt her arms and legs were confined. Fearful, her last thoughts being those of Arugal, the mad archmage of Shadowfang Keep, her eyes popped open and she found herself staring at familiar purple fabric. Turning her head, she looked up to see Zerith’s face. “So, the sleeping princess has finally awakened,” he said, glancing down at her and then back up. His tone held a mix of amusement and exasperation. “Where are we?” she asked, trying to turn away and stand. “Whoa, stop that!” he muttered in response to her struggles. “You don’t want me to drop you now, do you?” Kneeling awkwardly, Zerith set her gently on the ground and helped her up to her feet. Once she was standing, Alayne looked around. Callie, Ger’alin, and several others were walking, clustered around Zerith, on the road in front of the Sepulcher. “What happened?” Alayne demanded, confused. “I’d like to know the same thing,” Zerith said flatly. “But, to answer your question, my fine general, our forces defeated Arugal and took the Keep. While you were pretending to be Ysera, Deathguards arrived from Undercity and helped to secure southern Silverpine Forest. They also brought word that the Dark Lady is hosting a celebration in our honor tonight on the top side of the city. Lord Lor’themar will be there as well.” Alayne swayed unsteadily, taking in the news. “And now,” Zerith said, heat rising in his voice, “I’d like you to explain to me just what in the name of the Titans you thought you were doing launching the attack against Shadowfang Keep without even waking me up! Were you mad? You could have been killed!” he finished with a shout, grabbing Alayne by the shoulders and shaking her. The others looked away, trying to ignore what was going on. Callie motioned for them to continue on to Undercity while she headed towards the Sepulcher, leaving Alayne and Zerith alone with their argument. “Zerith, stop,” Alayne whispered weakly, lifting her hands to brace herself against his chest. “I didn’t want to wake you because you looked so peaceful, lying there, asleep. It seemed a shame to disturb you…” “And so you waltzed off, leaving me behind?” he retorted. “Did you think that wouldn’t bother me at all?” “Zerith, please, I’m sorry,” Alayne whispered, leaning against his chest, trying to steady herself. “I just did not want to wake you so soon after you finally fell asleep. But, we had to press the attack because the scouts got careless and were spotted.” Remaining as she was, her face in her hands, leaning against Zerith, Alayne began to weep. Exhaustion, fear, and horror at what she had seen during the battle had wrung her out; Zerith’s anger drove her over the edge and she wept bitterly. Zerith’s anger melted away. His expression softened and he wrapped his arms around his sister, leaned his cheek against the crown of her head, and began rocking her gently. “Calm down, Alayne,” he said softly. “Everything is fine now. I’m sorry I got so angry with you. But,” he said, lifting his face and then lifting hers up to face him, “if you ever do 42


anything like that again, I will chase you down and thump you from northern Lordaeron to Booty Bay.” Smiling through her slowing tears, Alayne nodded, accepting this punishment, and threw her arms around her brother. ~*~*~*~ “Everything alright?” Callie asked when she saw the pair walk up the road to the Sepulcher. The undead woman was sitting on a boulder just outside the village, grinning broadly. “We’re fine,” Alayne said, smiling brightly. “Lord Commander General Zerith, however, has ordered us to never leave him behind again. Our punishment will be most dire, he assures me, should it happen in the future.” Cackling a laugh, Callie joined the two as they headed back to the main road to Undercity. “It seems that the Dark Lady has forgiven you for whatever it was you did that made her so angry in the first place,” Callie announced, grinning at their expressions of surprise and curiosity. “While you two were talking, a Deathguard informed me that word came inviting the three of us to stay in the Dark Lady’s private abode this night after the feast.” Noting that the news had made their jaws drop, Callie airily added, “That’s a rare honor, in case you didn’t know.” The three continued on, their laughter ringing through Silverpine Forest. Soon they reached Undercity where they were greeted by banshee attendants. “Follow us,” the banshees requested, their voices wailing. “The Dark Lady has given orders that you are to be received in her quarters and helped to prepare for tonight’s feast.” “Oh, we couldn’t impose on Her Dark Majesty,” Zerith began to object, cut off by Callie putting all her weight on his foot and Alayne clapping a hand over his mouth. “Please thank the Dark Lady for us and tell her we are at her service,” Callie said, bowing smoothly. Raising an eyebrow at Zerith, she shot him a look that begged him to remain quiet and then fell in behind the ghostly attendants. Alayne gave his ear a fond tweak as she removed her hand from his mouth and followed Callie. With a sigh, Zerith hurried after the two women. The Dark Lady’s private quarters were nothing like the rest of Undercity. Stepping into her abode, one could almost believe they had been transported back to Quel’Thalas before the Scourge invasion. Her chambers were light, airy; more suited towards her former position as Ranger General of Quel’Thalas than her current station as leader of the Forsaken. Alayne and Callie looked around in open-mouthed wonder, prodding each other and pointing out things the other had not yet noticed, speaking in hushed whispers of awe. The banshee attendants glided and floated about, preparing rooms for the three, drawing water for baths, and presenting outfits for the celebration. The two women were beside themselves, overwhelmed at the honor being shown to them. Zerith just glanced around, confused. Yes, the rooms were nice, he thought to himself, but who cared if the decoration on the rug was an imitation of early or late Dath’Remar era? Alayne and Callie glanced over at Zerith when he cleared his throat loudly enough to be heard in Durotar. “What now?” he asked. Laughing, the women pointed to the room where the attendants had been hauling water for bathing. “You go first,” Callie giggled, “and we promise, we won’t look.” Muttering under his breath, Zerith went to go clean up for the coming festivities. ~*~*~*~

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“You look much better,” Zerith said, smiling his sincerity. His annoyance at being made to wait so long had vanished once Callie and Alayne finally left their shared room. The pair had washed up earlier that afternoon but had then disappeared into their room for hours, hissing at Zerith’s hourly inquiries as to whether or not they were ready. The pair preened, grinning and turning for Zerith’s inspection. Callie had combed her wild hair down into a semblance of neatness and pulled it back, tying it away from her face in a complicated braid. The dress she had chosen was made of dark red velvet with black embroidery and fit her well. Alayne likewise looked radiant; her hair had been combed out until it shone. The blood and dirt from the morning’s battle was a distant memory. Her dark blue robes flared out around her slightly as she twirled. “You don’t look so bad yourself,” Callie said with a broad grin, pointing at Zerith. The sin’dorei man flushed, glancing down at his dark green robes. His jaw-length reddishbrown hair hung neatly and the two days’ growth of stubble that had been dotting his chin was gone. He had decided against shaving off his goatee though Alayne continually teased him about it. “Well, shall we?” Alayne asked, gesturing grandly towards the door. The three linked their arms together, Zerith in the middle, and went up to the top side of the city. The ruins of the once-great city had been decked out in ribbons and paper lanterns, giving them a festive air and, momentarily, allowing one to glimpse the splendor that had once made the capitol a city of renown. The walkways, usually strewn with rubble crumbling from the battlements, had been swept clean. The greenery that had not yet fallen to the plague was trimmed into a semblance of order and beauty. “Ah, the guests of honor have arrived,” Sylvanas said as the trio emerged from the throne room. Alayne and Callie quickly made their best curtsies, murmuring “You honor us too highly, my Lady.” His eyes still adjusting to the light, Zerith quickly made his best leg and tried to hide his reddening visage. Sylvanas glided over to the three, waving off their formalities. “Come now,” the banshee queen said, her mournful voice sounding pleased, “the three of you have rid us of a threat to our southern flank. Your esteem with me has risen significantly. Besides,” she sighed, reaching up to finger a pendant, “you have done much to make me remember brighter times.” Zerith and Alayne glanced at each other, and then at the pendant the Dark Lady wore about her neck. Amazement painted their faces as they looked upon the very necklace that Zerith had found in the ruins of Windrunner Village. Seeing their expressions, the banshee queen gave them a rare smile. “But I am keeping you from the festivities,” she said after a brief pause. “Come, join in. There would be no feasting this night had not the three of you cleared Silverpine of the Alliance’s foul threat.” “And I, for one, would like to hear that tale!” Lor’themar shouted as he approached the group. Glancing over his shoulder, he waved for servers to bring drinks. Passing them around, he then raised his glass high, “Your health!” he toasted, drinking deeply. All nearby did the same. Alayne, Callie, and Zerith squirmed in embarrassment, uncertain of what to do in the presence of so many of their heroes. “And still modest as ever,” Lor’themar laughed. “But now, tell us how you managed to clear out the forces to the south.” The three tried to master their blushes as they explained the events leading up to the attacks against Ambermill, Pyrewood, and Shadowfang Keep. Sylvanas, Lor’themar, and their assorted generals kept drawing the three out, asking for more details about their plan of attack, the disposition of their forces, and other military matters.

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“It’s amazing that so much could be accomplished with such an irregular force,” Halduron Brightwing commented. “I’ll admit I had my doubts as to the wisdom of tolerating such a thing when I heard the rumors of your gathering in Silvermoon last week. Still, it has worked out for the best.” “Indeed it has,” Sylvanas agreed. “The Rangers and I accomplished much with our own holding maneuvers against the Scourge invasion during the last war. Many of our forces were irregular and conscripts much as these have gathered together.” The three guests of honor tried to look as if they knew what was being discussed when the conversation moved from strategy to logistics. Seeing that they were in over their heads, Lor’themar smoothly gave them a way out. “Yes, yes,” he said, nodding in agreement to a comment the banshee queen had made, “I agree with you about that. However, we should let these three mingle with the others instead of monopolizing their pleasurable company.” Bowing, he took Callie and Alayne’s hands in turn, raising them to his lips. “I’m not sure if that last bit was a compliment or not,” Zerith confided once they were out of range of the leaders of the sin’dorei and Forsaken. Alayne and Callie giggled, nodding in agreement. “He is a smooth one, though,” Callie said. “Good looking, too.” “Ach,” Zerith groaned. “Should I just go find a hole to crawl into while you girls engage in girl-talk?” “Poor Zerith,” Alayne said softly. “If you want, I can try to summon a succubus for you.” “Thank you, no,” he sighed, admitting defeat. “I’ll just go hover by the food with the rest of the men,” he said, jerking a thumb towards a table laden with fare from Lordaeron and Quel’Thalas. “At least that we simple males understand.” With a bow, Zerith left the pair laughing in his wake. ~*~*~*~ “There you are, Zerith,” Ger’alin said when he saw the priest heaping various kinds of food on a plate. “One thing I’ll say about these Forsaken; they sure can cook.” “Mm-hmm,” Zerith agreed absently, trying to decide between a rice sampling and some kind of pudding tart. Postponing the issue until later, Zerith took his plate and left the table, looking around for a place to sit and sample his selections. Ger’alin followed him, sticking by his side like a shadow. “Do you think you’ll be heading to Kalimdor next?” Ger’alin asked. Zerith shot him an annoyed look as he tried to hurry his chewing. “I have no idea,” the sin’dorei priest answered. “Maybe.” “If you do go, remember that you can always count on us. Those of us who helped in the Silverpine campaign will be more than glad to come to your call. Even in Kalimdor.” “I thank you for the sentiment,” Zerith sighed, his appetite suddenly gone. “But your allegiance should be to our people and their allies. Not to me.” “Oh, taste that,” Ger’alin said suddenly, pointing to a sampling of salad on Zerith’s plate. “It’s great. Anyway,” the man continued, squatting on his haunches beside Zerith, “you and Alayne are two of the best commanders I’ve seen in a while. I’d be happy to serve under your commands anywhere. No one had done a thing to clear out the Ghostlands until you two came along, put together a force, and rooted Dar’khan out of his fortress. From what I hear, the situation was much the same in Silverpine. The humans were allowed to encroach further and further into Lordaeron until you, Alayne, and Callie decided to get a group together and

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force them out. Frankly, following you is helping our people and their allies. At least more so than waiting around for orders that never seem to come.” Zerith digested this information as he finished his meal. Just as he was about to open his mouth, Ger’alin added more. “There are times I wonder what is going on with the leadership in Silvermoon. We were all told that Prince Kael’thas would return from Outland and that our people would ascend to their rightful places as guardians of Lordaeron, Quel’Thalas, and leaders in the fight against the Scourge. So far, all we have to show for it is…” “The rebirth of Silvermoon, the secrets of siphoning off fel energies to help us deal with our arcane addictions, the recapturing of Eversong and Ghostlands, and the recruitment of our people back to their rightful homeland,” Zerith completed for him. “What did you expect, Ger’alin? That Prince Kael’thas would stride out of the Dark Portal and the entire world would bow down before every last elf with no struggle? I’m sure that the leaders of the sin’dorei are doing all that they can to help our people. We just don’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle like they do.” “That’s true,” Ger’alin muttered thoughtfully. “I just get so frustrated sometimes.” “That’s bureaucracy. To be fair, though, I’m sure that Lord Lor’themar and the others were planning to clean out the Ghostlands. They were probably waiting for more of their forces to be prepared, were working out things with supply lines and other military issues. What we did was just lead a strike force in to kill as many things as we could,” Zerith explained. “In a way, we were lucky that it worked at all. But, our small force could not have held Deatholme against reinforcements. Nor could our group here have held Silverpine against reinforcements from the Alliance. We put together a quick-strike force, not an occupying force. Trust me, if Alayne or I started ordering you to do things to hold territory or maintain law and order, you’d be just as frustrated at us as you are at our leaders.” Ger’alin stared at Zerith for a moment. “Tell me, Brother,” he said formally, “does the priesthood require that you pass a test of wisdom before your initiation, or does the Light itself whisper such sentiments in your ears?” Zerith’s brow furrowed in annoyance and he glared at Ger’alin. Unable to keep a straight face, the sin’dorei fighter began to chuckle. “Well, to be honest, my son,” Zerith replied, affecting the air of an archbishop, “I cannot reveal the secrets required for initiation unless, of course, you consent to a ritual death immediately following their revelation.” ~*~*~*~ “I still cannot believe how much they did for us,” Alayne whispered to Callie. The two women stood off from the crowds a bit, watching the festivities. “I know. I never dreamed that I would ever be so honored by the Dark Lady,” Callie replied, awe plain in her voice. “Callie,” Alayne began awkwardly, turning to face the Forsaken, “forgive me for prying, but I’ve been wondering this ever since I heard about what happened with the Lady Sylvanas. How did you, um, break free?” “Of the Lich King, you mean?” Callie finished with a sad smile. “I don’t mind talking about it. Provided, of course, that you will listen with an open mind and not condemn me for things I did while I was under his control. Most of us Forsaken have a hard time talking about our condition with outsiders. In the early days, some of our number did try to explain it to our former allies and families. However, for most of us, it’s once burnt, twice learnt.” The rogue shivered, remembering the few times she had tried to plead her case to

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distant relatives and former friends who had been lucky enough to be out of town on that bright, horrifying day. None had listened. She had barely escaped with her life. “I will respect your confidence completely. And, I will not judge you for anything you may have done when you were without your own free will,” Alayne promised. She hoped that the Forsaken had not been among those at the Sunwell, though. For all that she did not want to condemn someone for something done against their will, she did not know how she would handle it if she learned that Callie had been amongst those who killed Tal’ar Dawnrunner. “Very well. First, understand that I can speak only of my condition. What I tell you about what I went through may not be the same thing that another went through. Our experiences are as many as our number,” Callie began. Alayne nodded in understanding and the Forsaken woman continued. “For me, it began shortly after Prince Arthas returned from Northrend…” ~*~*~*~ “He’s back!” Callie squealed, clapping her hands and hopping up, trying to see over the heads of the crowd in front of her. “He’s been gone so long; I hope that his return means that this strange plague is over.” “Of course it’s over, silly,” Mara sighed. “Prince Arthas would not be returning if there was any threat to Lordaeron.” “I know, I know,” Callie answered by rote, “but he’s finally, really back! I’ve heard that the whole city will be turning out for the celebration tonight.” “No, Callie,” Mara teased, “the whole city will be staying home tonight. There’s absolutely nothing going on.” “I get it, I get it,” Callie temporized. “Oh, look, there he is now!” she shrieked, grabbing Mara’s hand while pointing with her other. The guards of the city had just lowered the drawbridge. Arthas and two of his advisers were crossing the bridge, entering the courtyard that led to the palace. Ignoring the grunts and complaints of the people around her, Callie dragged Mara through the crowd until the two were in the front row. As the prince of Lordaeron passed beneath her, Callie cast down the rose petals she had been keeping for this moment. Others were doing the same so that the king’s son marched through a steady sprinkling of petals. Mara and Callie gasped as the prince stopped briefly and caught one of the many petals floating down through the air. The pair could scarcely breathe when he looked up, his gaze passing near where they were. Then, just as quickly as he had stopped, Arthas continued on, his advisers flanking him. “He looked at us!” Mara exclaimed, once her breath had returned. “Come on, Callie. Let’s hurry back and get ready for the parties tonight! Wait until we tell everyone that Prince Arthas saw us!” ~*~*~*~ “I, of course, was content to let her tell her version,” Callie said, a half-grin pulling her lips up at the memory. “All of our other friends, the ones who had been discouraged by the crowds, were so jealous.” “And then what happened?” ~*~*~*~

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“He did what?” Callie shouted in disbelief. Mara had collapsed on the floor, her legs losing all of their strength at the news. “It’s all over the city. Arthas killed the king. Just walked up to the throne and ran his sword through his father’s chest. The guards are paralyzed. Arthas’s forces moved shortly after the assassination and hold the city,” Callie’s father explained. “I hate to say this about the prince, but I think he’s lost his mind.” “That’s the understatement of the century!” Callie huffed. “I can’t believe that Prince Arthas would kill his own father! This has to be some kind of nasty rumor.” “Callie,” her father said, trying to pre-empt the stubborn look he saw in his daughter’s eyes. “He did it. Face the facts for once. Why would the guards lie about this? If I could, I would take you to the throne room where, if what I was told is true, you can still see the king’s blood staining the floor before the throne.” “I don’t believe you!” she shouted in a rush. The room spun around her as the blood that had heated her cheeks drained from her face. Before her father could reach her, Callie had collapsed on the floor, overcome with dizziness. “Yes, you do,” he whispered, smoothing her hair back from her face. “That’s why you and Mara are so upset. But, please, sweetheart, stay away from the palace. Things are too unstable right now. We may be on the brink of civil war. The army has sent runners south to Gilneas and to Stormwind, seeking assistance and advice. Promise me you will stay away from the palace?” “I promise,” Callie muttered weakly. Taking a deep breath, she drew herself upright. “Mara can still stay here tonight, right? We won’t be going to any parties, it seems, but she can still stay over?” “I suppose so,” Callie’s father answered, standing up. “I’ll go down and check with Tavor about that now. You two girls pack up a few things -- clothes, food, and the like – in case we have to get out of the city fast. Hopefully, though, within a few days the guards will have re-established order and locked Arthas away. He can beg mercy from his sister, the Queen.” Callie stood up and helped the still shell-shocked Mara to her feet. “You’re not…” Mara started to say once she came back to herself. “Of course not,” Callie sighed. “I did promise him I wouldn’t. And, this time, it’s probably important to not try to find any creative loopholes to get around it. If the prince really did kill the king…well…let’s just go down and see if Mother needs any help with getting supper on the table.” The two girls straightened their clothes, smoothed their hair, and then walked downstairs to the kitchen. “No going out,” Callie’s mother said without even turning around. “I know what you’re thinking and it’s not going to happen.” “I wasn’t…” Callie began, trying to defend herself. “Of course you weren’t,” her mother laughed. “Now, why don’t the two of you get to work kneading the dough for tonight’s bread? I’ve got enough to do what with having to throw together a meal for all of us on such short notice.” With that, Callie’s mother dusted her hands somewhat free of flour and began knotting cheese, hard bread, and fruits into bundles. With a sigh, Callie began punching down the dough her mother had been kneading while Mara went over to stir the soup cooking over the stove. “This dough smells funny, Mother,” Callie muttered. “It smells like you put way too much yeast in it.” “Tsk, tsk. Poor Callie,” her mother teased, “having to knead smelly dough. Complaining in front of Mara won’t get you out of chores, my dear. There’s nothing wrong

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with that dough. The eggs were laid today, the milk is straight from the heifer, and the flour is straight from the mill, not even three days old.” ~*~*~*~ “I’ll never forget the last meal I ever ate,” Callie sighed, closing her eyes at the painful memories. “My mother’s best beef stew with carrots and potatoes and fresh-baked bread…bread baked with flour from the tainted mills our fair prince controlled!” “You don’t have to…” Alayne tried to edge in before Callie cut her off. “Oh yes, I do,” the rogue muttered. “I’ve not even gotten close to the bad part.” She shuddered violently as the memory of her last night among the living gripped her. ~*~*~*~ “I don’t feel so good, Callie,” Mara whispered. The two girls had given up trying to sleep and just lay in Callie’s bed, alternately shivering and sweating by turn. “Too much yeast,” Callie muttered fervently. “She used too…much…yeast…” Turning on her side, Callie yelped when she caught a glimpse of her best friend. Mara’s skin, normally olive-complexioned to match her dark hair and eyes, was dead-white. Her dark brown irises were a milky grey-blue and purple bags ringed her eyes. Mara’s own eyes shot open wide as she studied Callie in horror. “What’s happening to us?” Mara moaned as her body was wracked with convulsions. “Too much yeast,” Callie prayed, closing her eyes as she felt the final darkness closing in around her. Mara’s seizures were felt only distantly. “Please, Light, let it be too much yeast…” ~*~*~*~ “I suppose you can guess what happened next,” Callie said, drawing a shuddering breath. “I don’t recall it myself, of course, but I woke up a zombie, my will completely gone, enslaved to the Lich King. There are times, when I allow myself to fall into the state we Forsaken call ‘sleep,’ that I have strange dreams of that time period. Dreams of constructing buildings under the direction of a necromancer. Dreams of tearing apart humans, some of whom I almost recognized, who came against us. I don’t really remember anything of this period on my own; the next memory I have after my death is one of being in the middle of a forest, carrying some wood. I glanced around, confused, wondering how I got there and what I was doing with this load of lumber. Looking around me, I saw that I was surrounded by the undead. I was, of course, terrified, not quite understanding that I myself was undead as well. I dropped my load of lumber and ran through the forest. It sounds so cliché, but I tripped and fell near a brook. I did scream, then, when I saw my reflection in the water.” Alayne lifted a hand and put it on Callie’s shoulder in support of her friend. “I wish I had the words to express the sorrow I feel for you,” the sin’dorei woman said softly. “Sorrow? Don’t feel sorrow or pity for me,” Callie rasped irritably. “Yes, I lost much in my harrowing rebirth. I once was as golden and beautiful as you. Now, I am a pallid, pale mockery of the woman I had hoped to become. I don’t need or want your pity, elf,” she spat. “I’m sorry,” Alayne sighed, her visage fallen, “I always seem to put my foot in my mouth with you.” The Forsaken grunted, whether in acceptance or mere acknowledgement was unclear to Alayne. The two stood in silence long enough that Alayne began to wonder if she should leave or introduce a new topic. Finally, Callie spoke. 49


“I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on you, Alayne,” she said with a sigh. “I know you mean well, but every time someone pities me, I remember the last time I saw Raul and how I felt after.” “Raul?” “The man I probably would have married had I not been struck down with the Plague. He was no Arthas Menethil,” Callie laughed, “but he was a good man. He was an acolyte of the church and was out of the city when Arthas returned. The last time I saw him was when he was traveling through Lordaeron, heading towards the Scarlet Monastery. I tried to speak with him, but he ran off in disgust. I can’t see why,” she snorted derisively. After a brief pause, Callie sighed tiredly and turned to Alayne. “I’m going back down to our room. I’m a little worn-out from the battle.” “Of course. I’m sorry, I forgot that you and Zerith haven’t gotten any rest since we took the Keep. Please, go on ahead. I’ll try not to disturb you when I come in.” Callie nodded graciously and walked off. Once she was out of earshot of Alayne, she turned and whispered to the elven woman, even though she would never hear, “That’s not the battle I was referring to.” ~*~*~*~ “Where’d Callie go?” Zerith asked when he saw Alayne standing off in a darkened corner alone. Before she could answer, Zerith interrupted her with a jaw-cracking yawn. “That’s where she went,” Alayne giggled. “She said she was worn out from all the fighting. Looks like you could use some sleep, too.” “I could, I could,” Zerith sighed, letting his shoulders slump with weariness. “But I don’t want to leave you here alone.” “Oh, go on to bed, Zerith,” Alayne smiled. “I’ll be fine. There’s no big bad monster waiting in the shadows to snatch me away to their castle in the sky.” “I suppose not,” he laughed. “I will take you up on your kind offer, milady. I’m going on to bed. I’ll try not to bother you and Callie with my snoring.” With a fond embrace, Zerith left the fest. Alayne watched him go fondly. Un-noticed by either of the two sin’dorei, another group was observing them from a distance. “Could you tell me who, exactly, he is?” Sylvanas whispered to Lor’themar. “Zerith, a low-level priest. I think his family managed to flee most of the destruction of Quel’Thalas, thanks to your heroics, my Lady,” he finished with a bow. “He looks familiar to me. I may have known his family. I would have to ask him what his family name is to be certain.” “He does put me in mind of Ren’im Lightbinder, the priest who maintained the shrine in Goldenmist Village,” Sylvanas remarked. Lor’themar’s eyes narrowed. “He does favor Ren’im quite strongly. And, unless my memory fails me, Ren’im did manage to escape the Scourge invasion with his family. They were among the last ones out of Quel’Thalas, but they did make it out. I wonder if he has any connection to the girl, Alayne.” “You shouldn’t even need to ask that question,” Sylvanas hissed. “Of course he doesn’t. That girl is Tal’ar’s daughter.” “She’s Tal’ar’s daughter?” Lor’themar gasped, his eyes widening in shock. “Light preserve us, does she know?” “No, she doesn’t,” the banshee queen said with finality. ~*~*~*~

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“I see you’re still hanging around,” Ger’alin said amiably as he walked over to Alayne. Almost all of the other gatherers had descended to their beds. Only a few partiers and servers remained, most looking as if they would be going to sleep soon as well. “I got to take a little nap this morning,” Alayne laughed. “I’d heard about that,” he chuckled. “I wish I’d gotten a little nap myself. I was just about to head down now. Would you like an escort?” “Thank you, no. I’ll be going down soon, but I just want to linger here a while longer, thinking.” “Thinking about?” “Different things,” she replied coyly. “Mostly just decompressing. So much has happened so quickly that my mind hasn’t quite grasped it all. A few months ago, I was living in Menethil Harbor, wondering if I would ever find something to fill the emptiness left by the Sunwell’s destruction. Now, I’m standing at a feast, held in my honor no less, and I just got to speak with Sylvanas Windrunner, my childhood heroine. It’s all a bit much.” “Well, when you put it that way…” Ger’alin laughed. “I’ll leave you with your thoughts, Alayne. Good night,” he said warmly before he turned to leave. Once she was comfortably alone, Alayne sighed luxuriously, stretching her arms out in front of her and arching her back. She felt exhausted, but a warm, happy kind of exhausted. With a smile, she thought to herself that the real problem was she was afraid to go to sleep, lest she wake up to find that all of this had been but a pleasant dream. As she mulled over the events of the past days, she felt her cheeks heat with shame, embarrassment, and amusement by turn. “I wish you were here to see this, Papa,” she said softly, praying that her words would be carried to where ever his spirit was. “I wish I could introduce you to Zerith; you’d like him. I did finally get to talk to the Lady Sylvanas, just like I’d always dreamed of doing so long ago.” Biting her lip to hold back the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes, she sighed, “I miss you,” she said, finally. “Oh, listen to me,” Alayne muttered to herself, “out here alone, in the dark, whispering to a spirit that must have passed on well over ten years ago.” Turning purposefully, she strode back into the throne room, intent on going to her bed. As she was leaving the throne room, she heard a soft susurration behind her, a tingling whisper that sent a thrill from the base of her spine to the top of her neck. Turning her head slowly, Alayne cast a glance over her shoulder. With a huff, she turned around completely, glaring at the throne room. “Whoever is there, this is not funny,” she muttered in an undertone. As she turned back around, she thought she caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure sitting on the throne out of the corner of her eye. “I’m just tired,” she muttered to herself. “I’m just tired,” she said again, louder, “and I’m going to bed.” With an effort of will, Alayne marched down to the Royal Quarter, deafening herself to the indecipherable sighs that assailed her ears. “This place is creepy,” she sighed to herself, leaning against the door to her and Callie’s room. Wiping nervous sweat from her brow, Alayne squared her shoulders and began undressing for bed.

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Chapter Four: The Sin’dorei and the Horde

“R

attle!” “Hiss…” “BOOM!” “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” “Calm down, Alayne,” Zerith muttered sullenly. Of all the things he wished he’d known about his sister beforehand, her fear of flying was currently top of the list. The two sin’dorei sat in the belly of the zeppelin, Alayne with her head tucked between her raised knees and her hands gripping Zerith’s against the top of her head in a death-like vise. “THIS THING IS GOING TO CRASH!” she wailed at a particularly violent bit of turbulence. Summoning all the patience he possessed, Zerith thought back over the morning, trying to figure out where it had gone so wrong… ~*~*~*~ “So, how long before you finally succumbed to sleep?” Callie asked Alayne over breakfast. “I heard Zerith come in just after me but I never heard you come in.” Alayne said nothing. She didn’t even look up at Callie; she merely sat at the table, ignoring her tea, her head down and her fingers furiously rubbing her temples. “Are you well?” Zerith overheard the Forsaken woman ask, concern apparent in her voice. Quickly wiping the last bit of shaving lather off his face, Zerith poked his head into the main room to see what was going on. The movement must have caught Callie’s attention because she looked up at Zerith and shrugged, pointing helplessly to Alayne. “She looks ill, but won’t say what’s wrong.” “Hold on, Alayne,” Zerith said gently as he returned to his room and rummaged through his pouches. “I’ll have some tea ready for you soon.” Finding the leaves he wanted, the priest hastened over to the table, dropped them in a clean mug, and poured steaming water over them. “Drink,” he ordered, shoving the mug at the sin’dorei woman. She drank deeply, grimacing at the taste, but swallowing all the liquid. Callie opened her mouth to speak, but Zerith shushed her with a raised hand. The pair waited, staring at Alayne intensely, watching for any sign of improvement or worsening. Finally, after several minutes, the sin’dorei woman was able to look up, weakly open her eyes, and let her hands drop to her lap. “Bad dream?” Zerith whispered, afraid to make any sound lest her headache return. “No. General strangeness in the city late at night,” Alayne muttered. “This place is haunted.” “Oh, is that all?” Zerith grinned. “Did the evil mean spirits get you? You look like one kind of spirit definitely visited,” he continued, “and I know how bad those hangovers can be.” “What did you hear?” Callie asked urgently, shooting a glare at Zerith. “Just sighing. There were words, but I couldn’t make them out,” Alayne answered. “You’re serious?” Zerith shot in an undertone. Callie nodded. “Did you see anything?” the Forsaken woman continued. “I don’t know. I thought I did, but when I looked, there was nothing.” 52


“Hmph. Well, try to eat something. And remember; the spirits of people and events linger where ever emotion was strong. The ruins of this city are literally teeming with such spirits. They can have unpredictable influences upon the living.” Zerith and Alayne stared at Callie, their faces twin expressions of consternation. “That information might have been useful in our tour of Undercity,” Zerith said dryly. The Forsaken shrugged as if to say “my mistake.” Alayne rolled her eyes at the pair of them and reached for a muffin. “What is the plan for today?” she asked as she peeled the wrapping away from the muffin. “I believe we should pay a visit to the Dark Lady’s official chambers to pick up her endorsement of us to the Warchief of the Horde, Thrall,” Callie replied. “Or, at least, that’s what the banshee I spoke with earlier said.” “That sounds fine,” Zerith drawled, “and then I suppose we should probably set out for Kalimdor?” “I do love sailing,” Alayne said happily as she bit into her muffin. “So, when do we leave for the docks? What are you two looking at me like that for?” she asked, feeling a thread of unease worm its way through her stomach as she looked at the shocked expressions on Zerith and Callie’s faces. “Kalimdor is overseas, right?” ~*~*~*~ “Is she doing any better?” Callie asked looking at Alayne with concern. The three stood at the base of the zeppelin tower. Zerith wore an expression of longsuffering and Alayne was staring up at the top of the tower in open-mouthed horror. Her expression had not changed at all since learning about the wonders of goblin aeronautic technology. “I think I may have convinced her to actually go up the tower,” Zerith sighed. “Did you get the letters?” “I did,” Callie said, pulling out several sealed letters with a flourish. “Come on, Alayne,” she said soothingly. “It’s just a tower.” Taking hold of Alayne’s left hand, Callie motioned for Zerith to take her right and the two half-carried, half-dragged the elven woman up the spiraling staircase to the zeppelin platform. Once at the top of the tower, Alayne collapsed in a shaking heap, having made the foolish mistake of looking down. “Have you ever been to Durotar?” Zerith asked Callie, keeping one eye on Alayne and the other on the sky for signs of the zeppelin. He hoped it would come soon. Otherwise, they might not be able to drag Alayne on to it. “Yes. It’s very nice. Arid and warm. A bit dull, though. The features of Durotar consist of red rocks, red dust, red sand, and red clay. There is the occasional cactus to spice things up, however.” “Sounds wonderful,” Zerith muttered, his voice thick with irony. “I wonder why the orcs settled there of all the other places on Kalimdor. One would think that they would prefer a place with a more moderate climate and better soil. I know they are semi-nomadic but…” he sighed. “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough, though. There’s the zeppelin on the horizon.” Approaching the tower was the goblin-built zeppelin. The passenger carriage hung precariously from an enormous purple balloon-like structure that, according to Callie, was filled with some kind of gas that kept it afloat. A giant propeller in the rear of the passenger carriage moved the zeppelin through the air and acted as a rudder, allowing the goblin captain to steer the contraption. “How ingenious,” Zerith sighed, his jaw dropping open in awe. The zeppelin pulled up to the tower smoothly and Zerith and Callie stood aside letting the passengers from 53


Durotar get off. Glancing over at the huddle that was Alayne, Zerith sighed, reached down, and grabbed the back of her robes. He winced as he heard her nails scrape against the wooden platform. Callie had both her hands over her mouth, trying futilely to stifle her laughter. Once Zerith had Alayne settled, more or less, on the zeppelin, he moved over to try to take a look at the propeller and engine. Just as he had begun to move in that direction, the entire carriage shook violently as the zeppelin lurched away from the tower. “There goes the zeppelin to Orgrimmar,” one of the goblins on the platform said loudly, “I hope there’s no explosions this time.” “Ex-ex-explosions?!” Alayne screeched. Zerith sighed fretfully. This was going to be a very long trip. ~*~*~*~ “We made it,” Zerith said gratefully. Once the zeppelin had pulled up to the tower in Durotar, Alayne had been off it like a bullet, racing down the tower, ignoring the indignant shouts and grunts of those she shoved out of her way in her excitement to be back on solid ground. Callie had hurried after her, tossing apologies for Alayne over her shoulder as she followed the elven woman down. Zerith could hear her guffaws of laughter from inside the tower. Smiling to himself, he hurried down and outside, joining Callie in her mirth when he saw the cause. Alayne lay prostrate on the ground, dust hanging in the air around her as she tried to embrace the very land itself. “Land, beautiful, solid, not-up-in-the-air land!” she moaned ecstatically. Orcs, trolls, and tauren gave her wide berth, eyeing her warily as if wondering if her insanity was contagious. Shaking from laughter, tears streaming down his cheeks, Zerith reached down and pulled Alayne out of the dirt. “Come on,” he wheezed between chuckles, “we have got to go get you cleaned up before we present ourselves to the Warchief.” The trio walked, with Zerith and Callie having to stop every few steps until they mastered their laughter, into the orcish stronghold of Orgrimmar. The stone walkway leading into the city was covered in a thin layer of dust but provided blessed relief from the relentless glare of the sun. The city itself was laid out in a random, chaotic pattern and Zerith was forced to ask directions to the nearest inn from one of the guards. “Over that direction,” the guard grunted, waving a hand vaguely to the north. Zerith bowed politely, thanking the guard for his helpful, albeit somewhat useless, directions. The guard’s eyes narrowed and, for a moment, it looked as if he would speak. Then, recalling himself, the guard returned to attention. “They don’t seem to like us,” Zerith muttered to Callie and Alayne as the three moved towards the inn. “I know,” Callie said, sighing. “It will be a long time before the orcs trust elves and the Forsaken. Everyone, regardless of race, carries scars of mistrust from the last several wars.” “But we’re on their side now,” Alayne protested. “Yes, but it will take time. It always does,” Callie answered softly. “Besides,” she said, a mischievous glint in her eye, “I’d have a hard time trusting a woman covered in dirt with mud on her face myself.” Alayne’s face turned as red as the dust of the Durotar desert. Looking down at her robes, she tried futilely to brush the dust off, merely scattering it and smearing it around. “Let’s get to that inn,” she whispered hurriedly, “and pretend this whole thing never happened.”

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Suiting action to words, the three hastened their strides and soon found the inn. Taking rooms for the afternoon, they went up and freshened themselves for their meeting with the Warchief. Zerith and Callie were soon ready to go but Alayne, understandably, took longer to make herself presentable. Once she had finally gotten almost all of the dust off of her robes, washed her face thrice, and straightened her jaw-length blond hair, Zerith and Callie had been waiting in the main room of the inn for a half hour. “And so she arrives,” Zerith said grandly as Alayne entered the room. She shot him a glare that was meant to be annoyed but was spoiled by her own amusement at her earlier antics. “Let’s be off?” she suggested, gesturing to the door. The three friends stepped back out into the street and, asking directions of passers-by, soon made their way to the Warchief’s fortress deep within the area of the city known as the Valley of Wisdom. Callie whispered their business to one of the Horde servitors who nodded and motioned for them to proceed into the main room. The room was large, spacious, dark, and cool after the heat of the mid-day sun. Braziers around the room provided flickering light and little heat. Representatives from the Darkspear tribe, as well as various orc clans, stood around the room, their attention divided between the impressive figure of the Warchief and the newcomers. Alayne and Zerith walked up to Thrall slowly, their strides respectful and their gazes downcast. Stopping before him, they made their obeisance. Callie, more familiar with the orcs and their leader, simply walked up to the Warchief and bowed respectfully. “On your feet,” Thrall grimaced irritably, “speak and be quick. I’ve no time for elvish formalities.” Startled by his brusqueness, Alayne and Zerith rose while Callie handed the letter from Sylvanas to the Warchief of the Horde. “Sylvanas is a persistent one. So she’s sent some of Silvermoon’s own champions,” he muttered to himself, “how does this change anything?” Reading further, the orc’s brows rose in surprise. He glanced up from the letter and gave the two sin’dorei a weighing, penetrative look. With a harrumph, he returned to his reading. “Your people suffered a great betrayal by the Alliance. You’ve succeeded in fending off attacks from your former allies, as well as defeating a powerful Scourge leader at the footsteps of your homeland. Not only that; you have put an end to Alliance incursions into Forsaken territory in Lordaeron and pre-empted any chance the humans had at launching a northern invasion. Your race’s worthiness is no longer in question. It is now apparent that you need us and we need you. Return to Lor’themar. Tell him I get the picture.” With a dark grin, the Warchief crumbled the letter in his massive paws. “Welcome to the Horde.” “We thank you for your consideration, Warchief,” Zerith said, bowing. “We will return to Lord Lor’themar with your reply. However, is there anything the three of us could do for you or your people to further cement our allegiance?” Grinning in startled amusement, the Warchief raised a hand to his chin, rubbing his lower jaw as he mulled over his answer. “From what Sylvanas writes, you three are the leaders of some kind of unofficial strike force. That shows gumption and initiative – two things I approve of,” he grinned. “Gather your forces and return to Lordaeron. We have an outpost in the Arathi Highlands, Hammerfall. Report to Drum Fel there. Sylvanas may also have further instructions for you concerning operations she’s undertaken in the Hillsbrad Foothills. Now go. You are dismissed.” Saluting, the three left the Warchief’s fortress with a feeling of accomplishment. “That went much better than our first meeting with one of the Horde’s leaders,” Alayne laughed in delight.

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“Yeeeeeeeeeesss,” Zerith said, dragging the word out, “our first meeting with the Dark Lady was…” “…a complete and total disaster!” Alayne laughed. “I thought she was going to rip your head off.” “Well, at least you’ve given a good account of your people,” Callie said, “and you’ve helped them join the Horde. Now, let’s do as the Warchief suggested and report to Hammerfall. We’ll stop in Silvermoon for the night, of course,” she continued as the three walked back through Orgrimmar heading towards the southern gate. “Would you two rather go directly to Hammerfall or would you like to stop by our outpost in Hillsbrad to see if we can be of assistance there?” “I think we should probably go directly on to Hammerfall,” Alayne responded. “We’ve proven ourselves to the Forsaken,” she explained, “and we will definitely go to Hillsbrad and assist in whatever operations the Dark Lady has on-going there. However, we should probably take this opportunity to establish strong ties with the rest of the Horde. After all, even if we have proven that we’re worth admitting, we can’t rest on our laurels now.” “I agree with Alayne,” Zerith seconded. “If we want to have any hope of changing the minds of the rest of the Horde, we will have to prove ourselves to them.” “That sounds fine to me,” Callie nodded. “Now, we’ll just take the zeppelin back to…” she stopped when she heard a dull thud behind her. Turning around, she and Zerith saw Alayne crumpled on the ground, unconscious. Zerith bent down and lifted the elven woman into his arms with a weary sigh. “All things equal,” he said, “it’s probably better this way.” ~*~*~*~ The trip back to Undercity was peaceful. Zerith stood out on the balcony at the rear of the zeppelin, watching the land and sea pass beneath him and letting the wind whip his hair around his face. His enjoyment of the ride was spoiled only slightly by the scent of burning oil that trailed behind the zeppelin’s motor. The sin’dorei man would glance back over his shoulder every so often, checking on Alayne who lay sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of even being on the zeppelin. Callie was above, on the upper deck, watching the goblin crew as they monitored the mechanics of the floating vessel during its flight. Satisfied that he was alone with his thoughts, Zerith turned his gaze back out to the sea and his attention to the Light, praying silently as his father had taught him. He smothered the pangs of regret that he felt whenever he thought of his father. “Land ho!” The goblin’s shout jerked Zerith from his reverie. Gathering his sister up, Zerith walked up the steps to the upper deck and stood silently beside Callie while the zeppelin pulled up to the tower overlooking Tirisfal. They descended the tower silently, Zerith feeling out-of-sorts from his interrupted thoughts. “Is something bothering you?” Callie asked as they took the path to the ruined city of Undercity. “You are very quiet.” “The only thing bothering me,” Zerith said, trying to make light of it, “is that Alayne is too heavy to carry like this all the time.” “Are you saying that I’m fat?” she demanded. Zerith, startled by her wakefulness, nearly dropped her. “No, no, not at all!” he stammered hastily, setting her on her feet. Though he’d had precious little experience with women, he knew that question was a minefield better left untraversed.

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“I was kidding,” she laughed. “But, you have been quiet the last few minutes. I expected to wake up to you and Callie joking about my passing out. Is something bothering you?” “How long have you been awake?” Zerith asked, his eyes glinting dangerously. “Not long. I started coming around when you started going down the stairs. Now,” Alayne said, putting her hands on her hips and adopting her most stubborn look, “what is bothering you?” “Do you ever think about your father?” he asked, his eyes lowered and unfocused and his voice indistinct and distant. “Yes,” Alayne drawled warily, wondering if this was another attempted diversion. “Well, I’ve just been thinking about my father lately. About what he and my mother would have thought about us, what we’ve done, the honors that have been heaped on our heads. I find myself wishing he were still around. That’s all,” Zerith said firmly, lifting his eyes to meet Alayne’s. Alayne nodded in understanding. Callie cleared her throat and asked cautiously, “Would you tell us about your family, Zerith? I don’t believe you’ve said anything about them to me.” Zerith closed his eyes, gathered his thoughts, and, with a sigh, began. “I’m the oldest of five children. My parents lived in Goldenmist Village; my father and uncle were the leaders of the local shrine to the Light. My mother was the village midwife, using her skill with herbs to help my father with healing that the Light couldn’t seem to cure. My family was among the last to flee the village when the Scourge invaded. My mother and sisters fell ill and died just a few years after the destruction of the Sunwell. My father did not outlive them long. That’s really all there is to tell.” Alayne said nothing, just looked at him skeptically. Zerith returned her look with one of his own that said she had gotten all the information out of him she was going to get at this time. With a sigh of understanding, Alayne changed the subject. “So, how long would it take us to get to Hammerfall?” Callie glanced up at the sun to gauge the time. It stood halfway down from its midday peak. Nodding to herself, she answered, “We’ll get there in time to enjoy some lovely troll gumbo. We should go by Silvermoon first, though,” she said, “since it is literally a threeminute trip.” ~*~*~*~ The old orc eyed the three newcomers in wary disbelief. “I told the Warchief we needed reinforcements,” he muttered angrily, “but I meant warriors. Not a moldering corpse and two pretty-faced elves! We’re fighting a battle, here, not having a tea party!” the veteran orc spat. Alayne and Zerith drew deep, calming breaths. Callie sighed. They were getting used to this kind of reaction from their offers to help out. “We understand, Master Drum Fel,” Zerith said politely, “and while the three of us are not exactly what you had in mind, we would like to know what it is we can do to aid the Horde’s efforts here in the Arathi Highlands.” “Oh, so the pretty-boy wants to know what he can do to help the big green orcie,” Drum Fel sneered. “Well, let’s see. First of all, if you could go down and convince the nasty Witherbark trolls to stop attacking our village that would be nice. Oh, and after that, if you could see your way to doing something about the Boulderfist ogres who have taken over various parts of the Highlands, that would just be peachy! After you finish that, you could probably, ever so kindly, clean out the Alliance forces in the ruins of Stromgarde! Now, go 57


away! I have work to be about,” he grunted, dismissing the trio from his attention. The three saluted him as if he had given them actual orders and returned to the barracks. Once there, Zerith took another deep breath and smiled. “Callie,” he began, “would you mind returning to Undercity this evening? Alayne and I will remain here and will begin scouting the area around here in order to get a better feel for how to plan our attacks. You should be able to find Ger’alin Sunrage – remember him? – hanging around the War Quarter. Tell him that Alayne and I have need of him and any others you two can bring.” “Of course,” Callie laughed, knowing what was about to happen. “I’m sure that everyone will love to help out again,” she said as she turned to leave. “I’ll borrow a wyvern back to Undercity. I may have our forces back here by tonight.” “Tomorrow morning would be better, but tonight is fine,” Zerith replied. The Forsaken turned again and began to leave. “Oh, and one more thing, Callie,” he said. She turned around wondering what the priest had to add. “Pick up some salt, would you?” he smiled. “Our dear commander, Drum Fel, will need it when we make him eat his words.” ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin stood outside the warrior training center in the War Quarter of Undercity. He felt the glowing burn of a day spent in physical exertion spreading through his tired muscles. His long brown hair was slicked to his head with sweat and his sword arm shook with fatigue. All in all, it had been a productive day. “The Forsaken certainly have some innovative combat techniques, don’t they?” Tau’re remarked as he left the facility and stood next to Ger’alin in companionable exhaustion. Ger’alin smiled up at the tauren. The two had become fast friends over the past few days. Tau’re possessed the one trait that Ger’alin admired above all others: a passion for honorable combat. “Of course they do,” he said in response to the tauren’s question, “imagine if you did not have to fear injury so much. You’d probably be much more inventive in combat as well.” “Oh, they do fear it. They can die by being hacked to pieces.” “Yes, but look at their physical traits. They can go long without sleep or food, they do not feel pain as keenly as living beings do. The undead are as close to an ideal fighting force as makes no difference.” “Which, of course, is why they are so hard to drive out,” Tau’re sighed. “The chieftains sent me, along with several others, here to learn how to combat the undead. Thus far, we’ve had little problem with the Scourge in Kalimdor. The undead we face there are not the Lich King’s slaves; they are just the spirits of those who cannot find their rest.” “So…why the concern, then? It should be easy to overcome unorganized rabble, even if the rabble is undead.” “Because, while they are not Scourge right now, there is the fear that the Lich King just needs to reach out his hand and they will fall right into it,” the bull-man sighed. “But, enough unpleasant talk. Come, let us go to the tavern and wash away our weariness with ale, meat, and companionship.” “That sounds like an excellent idea,” Ger’alin agreed, sheathing his sword. Tau’re looped his massive mace through its holder on his back and the two began to walk towards the tavern. “You’ve never told me why you are always in the War Quarter,” Tau’re said after a brief pause. “Most of the sin’dorei keep themselves to the Magic Quarter. I have seen very

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few warriors among them. As a matter of fact,” he said, his deep voice thick with amusement, “you are the first sin’dorei warrior I’ve seen.” “Well, I’m not exactly a warrior,” Ger’alin explained. “My father was a guard before Arthas invaded our homeland. I wanted to be a guard, just like him. When I was a lad, my mother made me a guard outfit that looked exactly like my father’s. I used to wear it all the time, following him around town on his patrols when I was supposed to be doing chores or attending to my studies.” “He sounds like an honorable man.” “He was,” Ger’alin sighed, “anyway, long story short: as I escaped from Quel’Thalas during the invasion, I fell in with human soldiers and wound up in Theramore. As soon as I was old enough, I joined the Theramore guard force. Then, several months ago, I heard about Kael’thas and his plans to rebuild our homeland. I resigned from the guard and returned to Quel’Thalas, thinking I would join the army or the guards there. Instead, I was told that they were no longer taking in additional warriors. Apparently, there were more than enough who had come back home on Prince Sunstrider’s orders. I looked into other forces I could join or train with until I could earn a commission in the Silvermoon Army. However, my people are very reliant on magic which meant I needed to be able to use magic. I should have studied more as a child, eh?” he laughed. Tau’re nodded with a smile. “Well, I’m not so good at the arcane so mage training was off the list. Warlock training was never a consideration. I enjoy the good life too much to make it as priest. Back-stabbing and sneaking are dishonorable, so I could just tick ‘rogue’ right off. That left training as a hunter or joining the Blood Knights,” he sighed. “And, while I love nature, I don’t love it that much. So, the Blood Knights it was. Only, I wound up irritating my teachers so much with my inability to learn how to siphon off divine energy using their methods that they gave up, told me to practice swinging my sword, and to pray that I would never need anything other than that. So, here I am. A paladin who can’t cast the first holy spell but is respected enough for skill-at-arms that I’m a Blood Knight.” “It is a path with much honor,” Tau’re stated. Ger’alin nodded in agreement. “I haven’t had many chances for honor since I don’t seem to fit into the mold our people prefer,” the sin’dorei sighed. “Frankly, until Zerith and Alayne recruited me into their force, I hadn’t had any chances. All of the plum assignments went to others.” “Alayne and Zerith…I seem to have heard those names before,” Tau’re mused. “I’d be surprised if you hadn’t,” Ger’alin muttered. “Looks crowded tonight,” he said, pointing to the main room of the tavern. “But there are a few empty tables over by the stairs.” The two made their way carefully across the crowded room and sat down at one of the few empty tables. Placing their orders with one of the maids bustling about the room with drinks, they turned back to their earlier conversation. “Aren’t those the two elves who managed to kill the Scourge leader over near Silvermoon City?” Tau’re asked after a few moments of silent thought. “Alayne and Zerith? Yes. Those are the two who had the idea of putting together a force that could launch a quick, hard strike. According to Zerith, the idea came to them after some guard in Ghostlands made an off-hand comment that made Alayne mad as a wet cat. I’m part of that force. We brought Dar’khan to justice,” he said proudly, “and we put an end to the Alliance threat in Silverpine as well. I’ll tell you, Tau’re,” he confided, “all either of them has to do is send word and I will go where ever they need and do whatever they ask.” “I would like to meet these friends of yours,” Tau’re said, his eyes bright with eagerness. “And I would like to join their force. Any group you are part of must be a group with much honor. What is it?” he asked seeing Ger’alin’s face suddenly light up as he stared at the doorway of the tavern. An undead woman stood in the door, looking around the room. A smile crossed her face as soon as she found Ger’alin. 59


“Well, my friend,” he replied with a huge grin, “you may be about to get your chance to do just that.” ~*~*~*~ “I wonder how Callie is faring,” Zerith wondered aloud as he and Alayne crept quietly over the rough terrain that formed the border between the Arathi Highlands and the Wetlands. “She’s probably doing better than we are,” Alayne muttered, limping behind Zerith. “If I stub my toe on just one more rock…” “We’ll be heading back soon, Alayne. Our reconnaissance work is almost done.” “It’s not like there was much to do. Once we convinced some of the orcs back at the camp that we were serious, they gave us a pretty good map of Stromgarde and its forces. The ogre camps are about what you’d expect from the beasts; random patrols who are as likely to be asleep or eating as not. I hope Callie brings Ger’alin back,” she muttered absently. “He did mention having experience fighting against ogres in his past.” “They are in caves, though, which worries me,” Zerith sighed. “It’s not like we can scout out the caves without giving ourselves away. For all I know, those caves could meet underground somewhere.” “They don’t. Trust me on that one. Remember, I grew up just south of here. The Highlands are rockier than the Wetlands but not by much. Caves in this area won’t go very far underground and will not be very long. They have nothing on the ones you can find down in Dun Morogh.” “I’ve never been here or to Dun Morogh. I keep forgetting that you and your mother lived in Menethil, though. Let’s stop for a bit,” he sighed. “It looks like the trolls here are getting ready for a change of the guard. At least they aren’t sleeping on the job.” “Of course they aren’t, silly,” Alayne giggled quietly as she and Zerith settled down in the shadow of a large rock. From where they sat, they could see a good part of the troll village that dotted the southeastern corner of the Highland’s plateau. The moon was just reaching its zenith in the inky blue sky above them and the troll guards had the look of men shaking off lethargy in preparation for leaving their posts. “I remember my father telling me stories about the fierce Amani trolls who are still holed up in the ruins of their great city, Zul’Aman.” “I remember those stories. My father used to tell them to me,” Zerith said, a smile of nostalgia spreading slowly across his face. “Will you tell me what happened to your family? I don’t mean to pry,” Alayne said hastily, “but I just feel strange; I’ve told you about my family, but you’ve been silent about yours.” Zerith sighed heavily. “It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything from you, Sis,” he said affectionately, “it’s that talking about them is hard for me because of the unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable question of ‘why?’ Besides,” he pointed out, gesturing towards the troll village, “now is hardly the time to engage in lengthy conversation. Let’s take advantage of their settling in for a routine night to finish our reconnaissance and then head back to Hammerfall. I’m about ready to fall asleep out here on the cold, hard, wet ground.” “Okay, brother dearest,” Alayne said in a tone of fond tolerance, “I’ll let you dodge the subject this once. Next time we’re alone together, though, you’re telling me about it all if I have to sit on you and pluck your leg hairs out one by one.” “Note to self: let cannibal trolls have me over for supper before angering Alayne,” Zerith muttered. Alayne punched him playfully on the shoulder before steeling herself and returning to their spy work against the Witherbark trolls. 60


As the pair skirted around the perimeter of the village, moving with graceful stealth through the night’s long shadows, Alayne’s lips moved as she kept a silent count of the numbers of trolls out and about in the darkness. After an hour’s worth of spying, the pair were satisfied that they knew as much about the troll village’s layout and disposition of forces as they would learn short of infiltrating. Continuing to move quietly, the two made their way back north towards Hammerfall. Once they were out of eyeshot and earshot of the troll village, Alayne picked up the threads of their previous conversation. “So, tell me at least where you and your family fled to after the invasion,” she teased. “You just are not going to leave me alone until I tell you everything, aren’t you?” Zerith said in mock annoyance. “That’s right. I’m your annoying little sister.” “Annoying is right,” he laughed. “We fled to the Hinterlands after the Scourge invaded. My father and uncle managed to get most of the villagers onto boats and rafts that we kept moored on the coast. We skirted the northern coast and came down the eastern side of Lordaeron, avoiding the worst of the fighting by staying on the water.” “So you were in Quel’Thalas just as the Scourge came through?” Alayne asked breathlessly, her eyes wide with wonder. “My father managed to convince my mother to take me and flee to Menethil a few days before the Scourge broke through.” “If my family had been anyone other than who they were, we probably would have done the same. Getting you and your mother out of there was the wisest, most loving thing your father could ever have done for you. Believe me, Alayne, you were spared the horror of seeing those…” he trailed off, unable to continue, shaking with rage at the memory of the last sight of his village being overrun by the Scourge, the few guards remaining slaughtered and then raised and forced to fight on, this time against their former comrades. Drawing a deep breath, Zerith closed his eyes to blot out the horrors. With a weary smile, half fond, half apologetic, he looked down at Alayne who had put her hand on his arm in support. “Anyway, you were spared much. We got as far as the Hinterlands before our supplies and ships wore out. We managed to sneak past some of the troll villages in the area. I guess you could say we were successful,” he sighed, his voice flat. “Only a few dozen of us got killed. We made it to Aerie Peak where the Wildhammer clan took us in and let us establish a settlement nearby; the Quel’Danil Lodge. Many of our people are still there. I was one of the few who decided to return home when our prince called.” Zerith looked as if he were about to continue his tale when he suddenly cut off. He raised his hand peremptorily at Alayne when she opened her mouth as if to speak. Cocking his head to the south, Zerith listened intently. Without an explanation, he shoved Alayne off the road, dragging her into the undergrowth nearby and smothering her half-hearted protests with his hands. After a few minutes, Alayne was grateful for his rough treatment. As the two watched from their hiding spot in the brush, a small band of trolls stalked up the road, headed towards Hammerfall. Zerith stared after them, his hatred plain on his face, not moving until the band was well up the road. Only then did he remove his hand from Alayne’s mouth and help her up out of the brush, offering abject apologies for his rough handling. “So, are we going to let them attack Hammerfall?” Alayne asked, cutting of his excuses. “I don’t want to, Alayne, but five of them versus two of us?” “Actually, five of them versus three of us,” she corrected him as she focused inward, reaching through the nether and grabbing hold of the first demonic presence she sensed that she could compel. Zerith’s jaw dropped as the demon took shape before him. If the demon had been less demonic, she would have been an attractive woman.

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“Excellent,” Alayne grinned, noting the distracted look on her brother’s face. “If a civilized male like you has trouble, those trolls don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Molten Core.” Before Zerith could argue or even question whether or not this was a wise course of action, Alayne and her succubus were chasing off after the troll band. With a sigh, he prayed that the Light would be with them and set off after her. ~*~*~*~ “Well look at what the cat dragged in,” one of the orcish guards outside of Hammerfall sneered when he saw the two sin’dorei stumbling up the road. “What happened? Did the meanie ogres not want to play with you? It’s past your bedtime anyway, elfies.” “Say nothing,” Zerith whispered to Alayne. “Callie’s getting the salt.” “‘Callie’s getting the salt?’” Alayne quoted, trying not to burst into laughter. “That is a new one.” “Well, she is,” Zerith answered defensively. “Whatever,” he sighed after a brief pause, “I’m tired and I’m sure it made more sense earlier. Let’s just go wash the dust and troll stench off and find some place to curl up and sleep. I still cannot believe you just rushed them like that,” he muttered. “Were you trying to get yourself killed?” “No, Zerith, I was not trying to get myself killed. And, I hardly ‘rushed’ them. I sent the succubus in first to distract them and then, when they were good and distracted, then and only then did I go after them myself. By then, you were with me so I was hardly alone.” “I know, but Alayne,” he said, a slight whine of fatigue worming into his voice, “we were lucky that time. Trolls normally carry charms and wards to protect them from curses and hexes. They are extremely superstitious. Next time, instead of trying to take on a group of trolls on your own, can we just settle for beating them to the village and giving a warning?” “I suppose we can,” she sighed, “but I just kept thinking that if we let them get to Hammerfall, Drum Fel and the others would never let us live it down.” “Better that we live it down than die trying to prove a point.” “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry. I will attempt to curb my late-night impetuousness in the future.” “You’d better,” he said lightly. “Otherwise, I will have to ask the Brotherhood to assign you some monstrous penance for making me worry so much about you.” Alayne snorted derisively and walked on into the barracks. Zerith followed her silently and the two began readying themselves for bed. Just as he was about to drop off the edge into unconsciousness, he heard Alayne giggle and say, “I wonder what the orcs would have thought had we brought back trophies. I’ll bet salt goes great with troll flesh.” ~*~*~*~ “Clang! Clang! Clang!” “He is a sound sleeper.” “CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!” Zerith rolled over, pulling the sheet over his head. Ger’alin sighed and set the pot and wooden spoon he’d been banging down. “Maybe if we got a cannon?” Alayne suggested helpfully. “No, I have a better idea,” Callie laughed as she dashed outside. Moments later, she returned with a bucket filled with water. Bits of ice floated it in. “Davril chilled it for me. If this doesn’t work, we can stick his hand in a bowl of warm water.” she explained. 62


“That won’t wake him,” Ger’alin muttered wryly. “No, but it would amuse me greatly,” Callie laughed. Then, without another word, she tossed the bucket on Zerith’s still-slumbering form. The sin’dorei man leapt out of the bed, tangling himself in his soaking sheets and robes, and landed heavily on his rump. Alayne, Callie, and Ger’alin burst out laughing at the irritated expression on his face. “You wouldn’t wake up,” Alayne explained once her breath had returned. “We tried everything. Shaking you, pulling your eyes open, shouting, banging a pot next to your face.” “Cold water was our next option,” Callie interjected. “If that hadn’t worked, I would have tried putting your hand in warm water.” “That doesn’t wake you up,” Zerith muttered in annoyance as he untangled himself and stood up. “No, but it would amuse me greatly,” the Forsaken laughed. “Okay, enough of that,” Alayne said, putting an end to the antics. “Zerith, wash up and get dressed. Everyone’s outside waiting on you. And I do mean everyone,” she said happily. “Apparently, Ger’alin here, among others, decided to brag about what our group has done in the Ghostlands and in Silverpine. We have more people outside than we really need.” “How many?” Zerith asked. “About a hundred,” Ger’alin answered. “Catch him!” Alayne shouted as Zerith’s knees buckled. Ger’alin sprang over and managed to grab the unconscious man before he hit the ground. Alayne hovered over her brother protectively, chaffing his wrists and gently slapping his cheeks by turn. “So, should I go get that warm water?” Callie asked nonchalantly. ~*~*~*~ “Feeling better?” Ger’alin asked when Zerith finally stepped out of the barracks. The sun was well overhead, yet still far short of its noon-day peak. Any answer Zerith may have made was lost in the roar of applause that rolled through the encampment once the mass of people noticed his presence. Blushing with embarrassment, Zerith raised a hand asking for quiet. “No need to let everyone know we’re here,” he said in a carrying tone. The crowd quieted with a few murmurs of amusement. “It looks like we have a lot of people. In a bit, I will be asking you to sort yourselves by specialization and report to either myself, Alayne over there,” he said, pointing to her, “Ger’alin or Callie,” again, he indicated those he named, pointing to the sin’dorei and Forsaken in turn. “Alayne and I have done some initial reconnaissance work on the ogre and troll settlements outside of Stromgarde. Once we know more about what everyone here can do, we will come up with a plan to attack these areas and drive out any who would oppose the Horde’s control of the Arathi Highlands!” The orcish guards were jolted as the crowd roared in applause. Perhaps, some of them were thinking, there is more to these elves than we first believed. Zerith raised his hand again for silence. “Would those of you who are primarily combat-trained report to Callie and Ger’alin and tell them your weapon specialty and any additional skills you might have? Casters, report the same to Alayne. Healers and other non-combat forces, report to me over there,” he said, pointing to the far corner of the settlement. The crowd began sorting itself out. The group lining up to report to Callie and Ger’alin was, by far, the largest. The Blood Knight seemed to be breaking them down into further sub-groups based on their specialty. Alayne’s group was none-too-small either, boasting at least three dozen magic users of various stripes. Zerith’s group was small and quickly dealt with, consisting mostly of a few elven and Forsaken 63


priests and a pair of shaman. Once he was satisfied that they knew what would be expected of them, he left them to wait for his further instructions and went to help Callie and Ger’alin cull through their group. Ger’alin shook his head, indicating that they had it under control. Nodding in acknowledgement, Zerith stepped over to Alayne’s group to wait for her to finish. After several more minutes, the four stepped off to one side to discuss the forces they had. “We’ve got plenty of combat fighters,” Callie said with a chuckle. “Most of them are rogues or hunters; used to stealth or distance. But, Ger’alin and his friend, Tau’re have several warriors with them, not to mention a paladin who I think is going to run Alayne a close second for recklessness.” “Dar’ja will hardly do that,” Ger’alin said, rolling his eyes. “She’s so straight-laced that I wonder how she can breathe.” “Hmph,” Zerith sighed, “well, let’s get started planning a few skirmishes then, shall we?” Ger’alin called a few others over, veterans he knew could be trusted in this kind of work, and Zerith squatted down, drawing a rough map of the southeastern portion of the Highlands in the dirt. “There are two major areas of interest to our south,” he began, filling in those who hadn’t been scouting with him. “One is the ogre camp. We’ll be ignoring it for now. I’ll set a small force out to keep an eye on them in case they decide to try to flank us. Our primary target will be the Witherbark troll village.” “The village is open with huts built randomly throughout the area,” Alayne said, picking up the thread from Zerith. “The trolls build their homes in depressions in the ground so any groups advancing will need to keep an eye out; you can stumble over the huts before you realize it.” “What about their guard forces?” Davril asked. “They are spread out, mostly along the road with concentrations around the huts. A fair number patrol back into the mountain. I suspect there is a cave or path of some sort hiding more trolls. We couldn’t check it out last night,” Zerith explained, “because the path into the mountain pass is very narrow and twisty. One advantage we have, though, is that the mountain walls there are very steep. The trolls will not be able to get up above us and pelt us with arrows at will.” “How many trolls do you think are down there?” Ger’alin asked after a moment of thought. “And do they seem to be mostly hand-to-hand fighters or voodoo magicians?” “The village houses at least fifty trolls. Most seem to be warriors of one kind or another but I wouldn’t rule out shamans or witchdoctors,” Alayne answered. “Most of them were wearing mail and pants last night but I did see a few in robes. As for how many are hiding in the pass: your guess is as good as mine. I’d say at least another two dozen.” “Mm-hmm,” Ger’alin agreed as he stood in thought. “Your plan?” “Tell off ten people, five fighters, four magic users, and one healer, to keep an eye on the ogres. The rest of us form three groups of,” Zerith stopped, pausing to calculate, “twentyfive for the main force, another twenty-five to act as a holding force, and the last group to act as a reserve.” “No,” Ger’alin said flatly, “ten won’t be enough to do anything other than die if the ogres decide to move on us. Put as close to twenty as you can there. Mostly magic users, if you can spare them. Ogres aren’t too bright – Light knows we had enough of them in Dustwallow to learn that – so a few spells can hold them at bay long enough for the fighters to pick off the leaders. Ogres tend to fear anyone who can overcome the strongest among them. If you put twenty to watch the ogres, how many does that leave you?” “Sixty-two.” “Right. Split that group three ways as you planned. Twenty-one, twenty-one, and twenty. No reserve. Or, rather, the reserve is the force watching the ogres who are just as likely to do nothing as they are to attack.” 64


“Would you like to finish this?” Zerith laughed. “Because I like the way you think.” Ger’alin grinned at the priest. “I’ve had too much time to think and study battle planning. I did little else in Silvermoon. Let’s hear what you have and then we’ll argue?” “The three groups will attack in waves. The first group will sneak up close to the mountains, their backs to the ogre camp. The reserve group will go with that group and break away before they reach the mountains. The first group then moves in from the west and takes out the guards on the southwestern side of the village and moves towards the pass. Once that group has engaged, the other two move in, from the south and from the east, both making their way to the pass. All three groups will converge on the pass with the third group holding the mouth of the pass while the first two go further in.” The sin’dorei fighter stared at the priest in shock. Zerith stared back at Ger’alin with a look of annoyed consternation. “That is, if that plan is fine with you, General.” Ger’alin threw back his head and laughed. “That is almost the exact plan I would have suggested. My only changes are that the eastern group engage at the same time as the first group. Place a bowman with the first group who can shoot up a flare when the advance is given.” Zerith nodded in acquiescence. It was a good idea. “Ger’alin, you lead the first group. Callie, you take the second. Alayne will take care of the reserve group while I lead the last attack group.” Alayne looked as if she would protest for a moment but Zerith stopped her with a look that would brook no argument. “Questions? No? Now, let’s figure out who goes with what group.” ~*~*~*~ “We always seem to attack at night,” Davril noted to Alayne as the two kept their eyes on the ogre compound to their west. The sun had been midway between its peak and its fall when the final assignments for each of the four groups had been made. “The few hours after the evening meal and before bed are the second best hours to launch a surprise attack,” Alayne said, quoting Ger’alin. “The second best?” Davril muttered absent-mindedly. “The best time to attack is when no one expects it,” Alayne replied in the same tone, her occupation absorbed with observing the east, watching for signs of a messenger. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Davril start and turn to stare at her in irritation. “Of course,” she continued, “since no one knows when exactly that will be, we’ll settle for the second best time.” Davril relaxed, smiling sardonically at the joke. “They’ve engaged,” he remarked when he saw a bright flare light up the twilight shadows above. “Any movement from the ogres?” “None,” Alayne sighed bitterly. “If Zerith wouldn’t skin me alive for it, I’d say we could probably go take them now and save him the work.” “If it were only the ogres that we saw out wandering around their campsite earlier, I’d say go for it,” Davril commented. “But there is that cave.” Alayne nodded. She disagreed with the assessments about the cave but did not think it was worth the risk or facing her brother’s anger if she were to go haring off on her own. With a sigh of impatience, she sat down, folding her legs beneath her, and glanced back at the ogre encampment from time to time. The rest of her attack group milled about, some sitting, some standing, other pacing, all waiting for word to come from the east or for an attack from the west. Hours dragged by while they waited, each passing moment adding the tension of its crawling seconds. The bone-white moon climbed overhead. Stars began dotting the darkening sky and still they waited.

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“I can’t stand this,” Alayne muttered as the moon neared its summit. “We should have heard something by now.” “I think we’re about to,” Davril said, pointing to a sparse grouping of trees near the border of the troll village. A person was approaching them from the trees, his gait confident and sure and his eyes glowing faintly green. Both features marked him as a blood elf and thus, one of their comrades. Alayne motioned for her group to get to their feet and waited for the messenger to reach them with ill-concealed impatience. Obviously, there’s no rush, she thought to herself. The messenger was taking his sweet time. “We have taken the village,” the messenger announced without prelude once he reached the group. “Zerith says to move into the village. After the three attack groups have had a bit of rest, he plans to clear out the ogres.” “There aren’t that many,” Alayne said. “See for yourself,” she pointed over to the ogre camp. Less than two dozen ogres stood or sat around camp fires, most dozing. “We could take them now. Just us.” “I’m afraid that’s not up to me,” the elf said, “and I think Zerith means to clear out all of the ogres from the Highlands tonight. Not just those few over there.” “I see,” Alayne said with a sigh. “Very well. Let’s fall out to the village.” ~*~*~*~ “I still say that my group should lead the attack,” Alayne argued. Zerith, Ger’alin, and Callie had just wakened after a few hours’ sleep. “None of us were involved in any fighting earlier. My force is completely fresh.” “I know that,” Zerith sighed, “but your force consists mostly of distance fighters. How exactly are they going to be of use in a cave?” “He’s got a point, Alayne,” Ger’alin said. “You’d need hand-to-hand specialists for combat in a cave. Magical attacks are too dangerous in confined quarters. Too much a chance of having your spell backfire right on you.” “I understand that, Ger’alin,” she said slowly, “and I’m willing to concede the point that I would need some melee fighters. But I do not understand why Zerith is trying to leave me out entirely. You will need all four groups if you want to take both locations at once.” “She’s right, Zerith, and you know it,” Callie muttered beneath her breath. “Put her group with Ger’alin’s or mine and be done with it.” The sin’dorei priest sighed heavily. He did not relish the thought of being unable to keep an eye on Alayne. “Fine,” he conceded after a lengthy pause. “Ger’alin, you and Alayne take the ogre compound over by Stromgarde. Callie and I will move on the group immediately to our west. Once we’re done there, we’ll send word to Hammerfall requesting that they send an occupation group to keep the area clear. After that, we’ll regroup where you are, rest, and plan our next attack.” The three nodded. The plan was a good one. “I’ve not noticed that the ogres communicate much between their camps,” Callie added. “Each area seems to be fairly selfcontained and independent of the others. If that’s true, that may give us more time to rest before attacking their stronghold in Stromgarde.” “Normally, I’d agree with you,” Zerith replied. “But you’ve forgotten that the trolls do keep track. The Witherbark are allied with the ogres from what we’ve heard. Once they hear what happened here, they’ll be preparing for an attack.” Callie mulled over that information for a second before nodding in acquiescence. She, Alayne, and Ger’alin moved to gather their forces and march on to their objectives while the sky was still darkening with the deepening of night. “Ger’alin,” Zerith called to the man. The

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other man turned and glanced at the priest. The two women turned to look as well but went on to their forces when Zerith signaled that he only wanted to speak with Ger’alin. “If anything happens to her,” the priest said through his teeth, “you’ll…” “I get the idea,” Ger’alin said smoothly. “Nothing will happen to her. If she tries anything, I’ll tie her up and send her back to you as a package. Now, stop worrying about one of the most capable women I’ve ever seen and start worrying about how we’re going to clear out Stromgarde without pulling the entire Alliance down on our heads.” ~*~*~*~ “Watch your step,” Alayne cautioned as she led her group down the steep drop off from the road. She moved slowly, keeping her eyes trained on the ground and trying to shut out the white glare of the moon. She winced at every sound she heard from her and Ger’alin’s forces, her imagination amplifying the sounds until she wondered why the ogres weren’t rushing down on them. “Keep low,” Ger’alin ordered his group once everyone was safely off the road. “Pull your cloaks about you. You’re shining,” he warned his warriors. “The glint of the moon on your armor is all we need to give us away.” Moving as quietly as they could, the group made their way towards the ogre camp. A handful of ogres slept outside the entrance to a cave that was bored back into the hill behind them. Stalking as quietly as cats on the high savannah, Ger’alin’s and Alayne’s fighters snuck up and massacred the ogre guard force before many of them even woke up. “Now for the tricky part,” Ger’alin muttered. He and Alayne had agreed on a plan of battle regarding the cave before they had set out. Motioning for his best hand-to-hand fighters to move forward, Ger’alin led them into the cave, the magic users and ranged forces moving in a second wave with a space of about ten strides between the two groups. Within seconds of entering the cave, the sound of crude alarms and coarse battle shouts filled the air. Ogres surged from hidden twists in the tunneling cavern. Ger’alin’s fighters pressed their attack, forcing the ogres back further into the twisting earthen maze. Alayne’s fighters hung back, doing what they could to help the frontline fighters. Arrows, bolts of ice, fire, and shadow flew through the air over the warriors’ heads to strike down the ogres. Sweat trickled down Alayne’s face, half-blinding her and stinging her eyes. She’s long since lost count of the twists in the tunneling path that they’d taken or the number of ogre corpses they’d left in their wake. Her breath came in short gasps and she could feel the burn in her muscles that spoke of the effort her casting took out of her. Looking around, she could see the same feeling on the faces of those around her; a determined exhaustion that would not permit itself to be fully felt until the battle was won. Ahead of her, Ger’alin stopped and looked around for a moment, seeming to be seeing somewhere else. She felt his primal scream of victory in the base of her spine as he shook his sword triumphantly over the bodies of the dead ogres. “We did it,” he shouted over and over again. The group burst out in applause and cheering. They had achieved their objective; the ogre compound was clear. They could base themselves in the cave complex and launch their strike against Stromgarde without having to worry about being flanked from behind. Alayne turned, feeling pleasantly intoxicated from the victory. Knowing she needed to clear her head, she began to walk back up towards the entrance of the cavern. Ger’alin followed her, their forces following both of them, and threw an arm around her waist. “Have I ever told you what a wonderful warrior you are?” he asked, his face still flushed with the same intoxication Alayne felt. She smiled up at him in confusion, knowing that this was not right. Blinking her eyes and trying to force her thoughts to clear, she pulled away from him and stopped dead when she saw the silhouette of a troll on the hill above them. Without a 67


second thought, she hurled a bolt of shadow at the troll, hoping to disable him long enough for the others to finish him off. Ger’alin released her as soon as he saw what she was aiming for and ran up the hill, his warriors following after him. They made short work of the few trolls that were within reach but were not able to stop several from reaching the road to Stromgarde. “I never thought the trolls would be watching this camp,” Alayne repeated brokenly. “We never saw them last night.” “I should have thought of it myself,” Ger’alin said, blaming himself. “But there’s nothing to be done about it now. At least we know they know. We can plan around that.” “Right,” Alayne said. She glanced around at their forces. “Who here thinks they can run and deliver a message to Zerith and Callie’s group telling them we’re attacking Stromgarde and why?” One of the Forsaken volunteered and then loped quickly back to where the other group would be fighting. Alayne sighed and chewed her lower lip worriedly while Ger’alin watched her, wondering if letting the woman carry on would earn him her brother’s ire. “Let’s get going,” Alayne said at last. “We’ve lost the element of surprise but perhaps we can still make this work.” ~*~*~*~ “I should have gone with her,” Zerith muttered to Callie as they jogged down the road to Stromgarde. “I shouldn’t have let her go off without me.” “And you would have led the fighters?” Callie replied. “Ger’alin was the best for that job and you know it. It’s not his fault – or hers – that they didn’t anticipate spies.” “Still I…” “Can it, Zerith. Focus on the current crisis and worry about the self-recriminations later.” The pair continued on in silence, the stillness of the night broken only by the heavy breathing of their forces as they hurried on to their goal. The runner from Ger’alin and Alayne had met them on the road near the fork leading into the Wetlands. Zerith’s moment of victory over the ogres had been short-lived, dashed into a million shards of worry as the runner recounted the tale of troll spies carrying word of the attack back to Stromgarde. “We’re almost there,” a sin’dorei paladin said as the shadow of Stromgarde drew up on the horizon to the west. “Halt,” Zerith ordered. They were close enough to their goal to stop and catch their breath. Even with his bowels clenched and twisted with fear, Zerith knew that reaching Stromgarde out of breath and exhausted would do no one any good, least of all Alayne and Ger’alin. Most of the group dropped down on their haunches, fighting to bring their breathing under control and to slow the rapid thudding of their hearts. “We’ll need to be a silent as mice crossing a meadow with hawks overhead,” he warned the group. “Humans still live in part of Stromgarde. We do not need to bring them down on our backs. We will sneak up in groups of no more than five and hide in the shadows until we are past the human-occupied area. You,” he said, pointing to several fighters from Callie’s group, “will go first. For the love of the Light, be silent! I do not want so much as a squeak of your chain armor to give us away.” Those he had indicated nodded in understanding and, wrapping their cloaks about them, moved silently into the night. After several minutes of tense waiting, Zerith signaled another group to follow the first. Straining his ears to catch any sound that would indicate that a group had failed, Zerith sent one group after another until only he, Callie, and a few priests were left. Once the last group had disappeared into the shadows of Stromgarde, Zerith motioned for those remaining to follow him. As silent as the spring wind that brings rain, they tiptoed past the gates leading in to the area still settled by humans. Stalking in the 68


shades, they sneaked down into the area of Stromgarde that the orcs had indicated was inhabited by a mix of ogres and trolls. The sound of steel clashing against steel came to them as they made their way further into the ruins of the city. With a slashing gesture, Zerith signaled for his group to split up and go see where they were most needed. In the distance, just outside of a tower, he saw Ger’alin and Alayne battling with a pair of ogre shaman. His heart leapt in his throat as he ran to them. Before he reached them, one of the ogres was engulfed in flames forged from shadow. The stench of burning flesh made him stop and he watched in shocked awe as the ogre thrashed about, trying to stifle the magical flames. Ger’alin was finishing off the other of the pair, his sword cutting cleanly through the shaman’s body leaving nothing but a welling streak of red blood as a testament to its passage. “There are more in the tower,” Alayne gasped as Zerith hurried up to her. “We’ve gotten most of them beaten. Just a few last left in the tower.” “They can wait. Fresh forces have arrived. Let’s go back,” Zerith said. “We’ll talk about this later.” Alayne nodded, motioning for Ger’alin to continue on with his fight while she remained behind the front lines with Zerith. Soon the sounds of combat faded with the failing night as the last of the ogres holed up in the tower were slain. Warriors, magi, and healers regrouped once the battle was finished and Zerith took a moment to count heads. “Any losses?” Callie asked as she worked her left arm. Just moments ago, it had hung at her side, useless, broken by an ogre’s club. One of the Forsaken priests had healed it though the memory of pain remained. “None, thank the Light,” Zerith sighed. “Should we stay here or try to return to Hammerfall?” Alayne asked wearily. “It’s daybreak; the humans will be stirring and I don’t think we’re up for yet another battle.” “I don’t think we should risk staying here,” Ger’alin sighed. “None of us are up for keeping watch. While we didn’t lose anyone, several need the kind of healing that only a good night – or day’s – sleep can bring. The humans will surely have heard the sound of fighting and will be coming to investigate. I say we leave now and make it clear we want no fighting. Maybe that will keep them off of us long enough for us to get back to Hammerfall or Tarren Mill.” “Let’s move out,” Zerith said, concurring with Ger’alin. “Put your weapons away, keep your hands out in front of you, and everyone carry some white cloth. That’s a symbol of truce among humans. Perhaps they’ll honor it.” “Keep the words to spells on your lips in case they don’t,” Alayne said in a carrying undertone. “For all we know, these humans would make Garithos look warm-hearted.” “We have enough troubles as is, Alayne, without you inventing more,” Zerith muttered under his breath. “Don’t get angry at me,” she returned as the group began moving out of Stromgarde. “It is not my fault that we were spied out by a bunch of cannibals. I had no choice, Zerith. If we’d let them get to Stromgarde and given them time to warn the others, we would have had a real problem on our hands.” “I know,” Zerith said, his irritation lessening, “but I still don’t like that…” “ZERITH!” Alayne screamed as she saw the point of an arrow bloom from his chest. The sin’dorei priest looked down at it in shock as his knees gave way. Alayne caught him before he could fall face-first on the ground. One of the other priests began trying to staunch the flow of blood using the white cloth he carried as a crude bandage. “Alayne?” Ger’alin asked, concerned. “Let the healers handle it, Alayne. Alayne?”

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Looking down at her trembling hands, she saw that they were covered in her brother’s blood. The white cloth, meant to symbolize a wish to avoid fighting, was stained red as well. Glaring up at the wall, she saw the human who had launched the arrow. “They’ll pay for this,” she swore, her vision tinged with fire and shadow. ~*~*~*~ “Someone stop her!” Ger’alin cried out. Alayne had run into the human area, throwing spells at anyone and everyone in her path. The human guards who rushed to try to stop the sin’dorei warlock burned in their armor as the enraged elf let loose a holocaust of flame, rage, and shadow. “We’ve got to get him out of here,” he said, pointing to his fallen leader. “Will he be all right?” “I think so,” said the priest who hovered over Zerith. “The arrow missed his heart. We’ll need to get it out before we can heal the wound, though.” “Then go and do that. I’ll take all but ten of the fighters and magi with me to see if we can pull Alayne out of there before she gets herself killed. The rest will escort you back to Tarren Mill. It’s closer than Hammerfall and there are Apothecaries there. Go!” The priest nodded and a crowd of fighters and magi formed around him, using their bodies as shields while the young priest prepared Zerith for travel. Ger’alin motioned for the rest to follow him into the human-occupied area of Stromgarde. Alayne stood in the midst of a rain of fire and blood. Ger’alin directed his followers to give the sin’dorei woman wide berth, uncertain if she could tell friend from foe. The agonyfilled cries of guards rang through the air where the Horde forces moved through. Inside the houses, women and children huddled in terror. Ger’alin saw one human woman staring out of her window in horror. He grimaced; they were not like the humans at all. The Horde would not storm into homes and kill civilians indiscriminately as humans had done to them in the past. Alayne had been right; these humans were so much like Garithos that they assumed his tactics were universal. They understood nothing of honor. “Alayne!” Ger’alin cried out as the battle drew to a close. The few guards left alive had thrown down their weapons and raised their arms in the air, surrendering. Forsaken, sin’dorei, and tauren surrounded them, kicking the humans’ weapons well out of their reach. Ger’alin’s eyes widened in shock when he saw what Alayne was planning as she smiled darkly at the disarmed humans. Rushing her, he knocked her to the ground, pinning her there with his own body. “You’ve more than avenged Zerith’s injury, Alayne,” he growled, his face twisted in anger that she could even contemplate killing those who had given up combat. “You will kill no more today. Do you hear me? No! More!” Alayne glared up at him in blood rage and struggled to force him off of her. With an oath, he pulled a hand back and slapped her hard across her face. The bloodlust left her eyes, replaced by normal anger. “Get off of me,” she said coldly. “Not until you’ve calmed down.” “That will happen when you get off me.” “It had better happen before then. Otherwise, we will be laying here like arguing newlyweds for a long, long time.” Alayne took a deep breath. Then, her eyes widened in shock as she saw the smoldering remains of a guard in her peripheral vision. “What have I done?” she asked in confused wonder. “Turned this place into a slaughterhouse,” Ger’alin said mildly. “Are you calm, now? At least calm enough that I won’t have to kill you to stop you from doing a damned-fool thing?” 70


“I did all this?” she said, rolling her head around to see the carnage her rage had wrought. “Well, not all of it,” Ger’alin smiled, “but enough of it. Now, the few survivors have surrendered. I’m going to order that they leave Stromgarde and that they never again fire on those carrying signs of truce. I will, regrettably, have to get off of you to do that. Can I trust you to stay calm long enough for me to do that?” “Where’s Zerith?” “He’s fine. They’ve taken him to Tarren Mill.” “I’m going after him now,” she said, trying to shove Ger’alin off her. The sin’dorei fighter rolled off her and helped her to her feet. Without a word to anyone, Alayne took off running towards Tarren Mill. With a faint smile, Ger’alin watched her go before turning back to the human prisoners. “By the laws of combat, you are our prisoners,” he said to the humans. “do you understand what that means?” “We do,” one of the humans said. A scar slanting across his face marked him a veteran of combat. “What do you intend to do with us?” “Right now, nothing,” Ger’alin admitted, “nothing except ask you to leave here and go south. We no longer wish to have you here in Lordaeron. We will give you safe passage to the Wetlands.” “Stromgarde has been our home for centuries!” one of the younger guards shouted. “We’ll not leave just for some elf!” “You will leave or we will be forced to kill you and drive your women and children out,” Ger’alin said quietly. “It was you who forced this fight by firing on us while we carried emblems of truce. We had come to these ruins only to drive out the ogres and trolls who have caused us some trouble. We had no intention of moving against you.” “We’ve paid for young Farin’s mistake,” the scarred human said. “Paid in blood.” “Indeed you have,” Ger’alin agreed. “Now, will you pay more, or will you accept the terms I’ve laid out for you? You will get no others.” “We accept. For now, at least,” the human muttered. “You may drive us out for now, but we will return.” “I look forward to it,” Ger’alin said simply. “Go, gather your women and children. We will see you to the Wetlands safely. Tau’re,” he said, pointing to the tauren, “gather their weapons. We will return them once we’ve reached the border.” Shocked gasps came from throughout the group. “They’ll have need of them when traveling through the mires and swamps. Or would you have me send women and children to certain death?” he muttered when the tauren eyed him uncertainly. “Let’s get moving.” ~*~*~*~ “How is he?” Alayne gasped as she stumbled into the inn in Tarren Mill. She would have fallen had the sin’dorei priest who brought Zerith not caught her. “He’ll be fine. We got the arrow out without doing any further damage and the wound healed cleanly.” “I want to see him. I have to see him.” “You can go in and see him, Alayne, but he is still asleep. He lost a great deal of blood and it will be a few days before he can be up and about.” Staggering on rubbery legs, Alayne clambered up the stairs and crawled through the door to the room where Zerith lay. One of the apothecaries jumped in fright when the door banged open and he saw no one until he looked down. On shaking limbs, Alayne managed to

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make her way over to the other side of the bed and pull herself up onto a stool. She reached over and took one of Zerith’s hands in her own, staring at him and rocking back and forth. “Are you well?” the apothecary asked, raising an eyebrow in concern. Alayne either did not hear him or ignored him, her attention focused completely on Zerith. Her brother lay sleeping peacefully, his chest rising and falling in deep, even breaths. A bandage had been wrapped around his chest. The remnants of his stained and torn robes had been cut away and his hair pulled back into a tail to keep it out of his face and the bandages. His face was pale, but not drawn with pain. The apothecary moved to the other side of the bed and began washing away the last bits of dirt and blood that remained on the priest’s shoulders and face. Alayne exhaled a gust of breath she did not realize she had been holding. Tears of gratitude and fear averted leaked down her face. The tears were the trickle that broke the dam. Soon body-wracking sobs drew her to her knees by the bed where she shivered in fear, sorrow, and remorse for the events of that morning. “Forgive me,” she whispered over and over again between her gasping sobs. From whom she was begging forgiveness, not even she knew. ~*~*~*~ “Eat or I’ll force it down your throat,” Ger’alin whispered pleasantly in Alayne’s ear. The sin’dorei woman woke with a start, momentarily confused at finding herself kneeling near a bed. Memory rushed in and with it threatened the tears that had been wrung from her earlier. Turning her head, she looked up at Ger’alin. “Here, sit, eat,” he said, his normal mischievousness fading as he looked at Alayne’s tear-stained face. “You’ve been up here with him for most of a day. No one wanted to disturb you when we got here. Then…no one wanted to wake you.” Alayne said nothing. Turning, she collapsed on her rump, glancing disinterestedly at the stool. She still held her brother’s hand though her own arm was forced across her neck as if she would strangle herself. With a sigh, Ger’alin settled down on the floor in front of her and put a spoonful of soup near her lips. “I wasn’t kidding about forcing it down your throat. If you fall ill, he’ll be after me for letting it happen.” “Why are you here?” she whispered, staring off into the distance. “Because I said I would come here. Because I owed it to Zerith to see that he was safe. Because I would follow you and him into the Nether for the hope you’ve given me.” Alayne continued to stare off into space dully. “Come on, eat,” Ger’alin pleaded, waving the spoon beneath Alayne’s nose in hopes of tempting her appetite. With an irritated sigh, she knocked the spoon out of his hand and sighing, let go of Zerith’s hand and buried her face on her knees. “Alayne, you can’t do this to yourself,” Ger’alin muttered. “It won’t help Zerith at all.” She muttered something incomprehensible. “What?” he asked. “I’m a monster,” she said flatly. “I’m a monster and Zerith will hate me for it.” “What makes you a monster?” Ger’alin asked in confusion. “What I did,” she said in a slashing whisper. “How I felt when I was doing it. When I got here and saw him, I realized…” she stopped, forcing herself to swallow her sobs, “I realized that I am a monster and that I should leave.” “What did you do?” “Light! Ger’alin, you were there! You saw me! I would have put the entire town to the torch if you hadn’t stopped me. I wanted to, too. When I was burning them, broiling those humans in their own armor, I wanted nothing more than to see the entire area burning in fires so hot that even the stones and mortar melted!” “So did I, Alayne. Does that make me a monster?” 72


“No, you don’t understand,” she said in frustration, tears leaking back down her cheeks. “I was enjoying it!” “Alayne, you are not a monster.” “You don’t understand.” “Shut it,” he said coldly, “and listen. Those humans had just shot Zerith, your brother. Someone you care about deeply. You wanted vengeance. That’s normal. Sure, you went a little overboard there at the end but, when it was all over, you restrained yourself. You didn’t do anything monstrous.” “But I…” “Here, eat,” he said, cutting her off. Fumbling around until he found the spoon, he thrust a spoonful of soup at Alayne’s face. For a moment, she stared at him in total confusion. He returned her look with a level one of his own, his green eyes cold as leaves caught in an early spring freeze. With a sigh, she leaned forward and let him put the spoon in her mouth. Reaching up, she took it from him and held out her other hand for the bowl. Ger’alin passed it over to her and sat, watching her in intent silence until she finished the soup. Once she finished, she handed the bowl back to him. “You should go get some real rest,” he said softly, his gentle tone a contrast with his implacable face. “Later. I want to be here when he wakes up.” With a sigh, Alayne lifted herself back onto the stool and, pulling it closer to the bed, took up Zerith’s hand and her vigil once again. Ger’alin watched her for long moments from the doorway, the look on his face unreadable. After a time, he turned quietly and took the empty bowl back to the kitchen. ~*~*~*~ “So close…” a man whispered, his deep voice sending chills up Alayne’s spine. She looked around, wondering who had spoken. Night had fallen on Tarren Mill. The only lights were the torches carried by the Deathguards from Undercity. “You were so close…” the voice whispered again, caressingly. “Who’s there?” Alayne said, hoping that the tremor in her voice would be taken for anger and not fear. With hands that shook, she reached for the candle on the nightstand and the flint and iron to light it. Once lit, she held the candle up and tip-toed around the room, looking for the mysterious speaker. “You’ll come to me in the end. They all do, little Alayne,” the speaker sneered. Just then, a gusting wind broke through the window and extinguished the candle. Alayne felt a dread presence behind her and, turning to look she… …fell off the stool and landed on the floor. Sunlight streamed through the window into the room, bringing light and warmth. Larks and nightingales sang joyfully in the pearl twilight of the early morning sun. Alayne lay on the floor for several minutes more, letting herself enjoy the warmth of the rough wooden floorboards. Then, gingerly, she pushed herself up off the floor and sat back down on the stool. She watched Zerith sleep, trying to ignore the pounding in her head. She seemed to be having strange dreams more and more frequently of late. “You feeling better?” came Callie’s rasping voice from the doorway. Alayne glanced up and smiled at her friend. Nodding – something she instantly regretted – Alayne motioned for Callie to enter the room. “I’m sorry if I worried you,” Alayne began. “Worried me? After seeing how well you handled that human scum yesterday, I doubt I’ll ever worry about you again.” “Yes,” Alayne winced, “about that…”

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“What about it?” Callie asked blankly. “They shot Zerith. You gave them exactly what they deserved. No more and no less.” “I see,” Alayne said quietly. She raised her hands to her temples and began rubbing them, trying to rub away some of the pain. “Do you want me to ask one of the apothecaries for something for you?” Callie asked. “You seem to be having a lot of headaches lately. Is that normal for a sin’dorei woman?” “Thank you. I would appreciate that very much.” Callie left the room. Alayne listened for a moment, hearing her footfalls echo down the wooden hallway. Then, alone with her thoughts, Alayne tried to puzzle out what was causing her to feel so differently about the attack on Stromgarde than the others seemed to feel. Had it been just Zerith being hurt? “No,” she thought. “There was more to it than that.” A loss of control? “Possibly.” Actually seeing humans, like those she’d grown up with, die? And knowing that it was she who had killed them? “Closer. Getting closer,” she thought. All of that and actually feeling the thrill of triumph – of righteousness – the justified pleasure of an executioner carrying out a long-deserved sentence? “Yes,” Alayne whispered to herself. “That’s what it is. That’s what the others don’t understand.” “What others don’t understand?” Zerith whispered weakly. Alayne’s eyes shot open and she leaned forward, her face breaking into a smile. “Are you feeling better?” she asked. “Don’t try to sit up. Just stay there and rest.” “Of course I’m feeling better,” he muttered. “I don’t have an arrow sticking out of me anymore. This isn’t Hammerfall.” “No. We had you carried to Tarren Mill. There are Apothecaries here and we feared you might need them.” “Hmph. How did you manage to get out of Stromgarde unscathed?” he asked. “Don’t worry about that now,” she said. “Do you want me to get you something to eat?” “No. I want some answers.” “Well, you aren’t getting them until you’re completely healed. I will not be responsible for telling you something that will make you want to beat me black and blue when you’re too weak to do it properly,” she teased. Standing, she moved towards the door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with some stew for you.” “Alayne…” he said weakly as she left the room, “what is it that the others don’t understand?” he asked. “Nothing,” she said over her shoulder. “I was just being needlessly introspective.” Zerith let himself sink further into the bed, shifting around to get more comfortable. Alayne ignored the others who were sitting out in the hallways, watching her pass by with open questions on their faces. They can never know, she thought to herself. I must never let them know. Above all, I must never let him know. Never. ~*~*~*~ Alayne looked up as Callie brought in a basin of warm water and several lengths of soft toweling. “We could put his hand in it,” the Forsaken joked, trying to elicit a real smile from the sin’dorei woman. Alayne gave her a tight-lipped smile that did not reach her eyes. “How did Drum Fel take the news?” she asked in a low whisper so as to not wake Zerith. 74


“Quite well. After we reattached his jaw, that is. Here, see if you can untangle his legs from the sheets while I get the pillows.” “I’ll never understand just how he tangles himself in bedding so thoroughly,” Alayne muttered as she and Callie worked to take the linens off the bed without disturbing the sleeping man. “It’s got to be some kind of perverse gift.” “It’d be nice if we could get his command of sheets to be useful outside of sleeping. Imagine the confusion on the faces of our enemies when we throw blankets on them and then Zerith uses his magical tangling talents to bind them. Ugh, we should change the bandage while we’re at it.” “Did you bring fresh bandages?” “Yes, and some of the poultices the Apothecaries recommend using to prevent infection as well. This would be a lot easier if you would let us wake him up and put him in the chair over there.” “It would, but difficult tasks build character.” “Well, you’ve got the title ‘Mistress of Character’ wrapped up then. Seriously, Alayne, why do you always do things the hard way?” “I don’t. Sure, this is hard for us,” she said as she gently raised Zerith up so that Callie could unwind the bandages wrapped around his chest, “but it’d be really hard on Zerith to have to wake up from restful sleep and move over to a chair while we change the sheets. He was shot in the chest with an arrow, after all.” “Point taken. The wound has healed pretty cleanly. A few more days and we can let him leave the bandage off, I think. Here, let’s go on and give him his bath while we’ve got the sheets off the bed.” “We should really wash his hair,” Alayne grimaced. “We should. Think we could do it without waking him up?” “The effort will net you the ‘Lady-in-Waiting of Character’ title. Let’s give it a try. You finish scrubbing his back and then I’ll take care of the rest while you get some more water for his hair. The water in this basin isn’t going to be clean enough,” she sighed. The water had already taken on a dirty red tinge from the blood that had crusted around Zerith’s wound. Callie quickly finished washing and drying Zerith’s back, giving Alayne the chance to lay him back down on the mattress. The Forsaken woman hurried back out to get another basin of water while Alayne scrubbed away the last of the residue from the battles. “You smell a hundred times better now,” she whispered to her sleeping brother. “And you’ll rest better now that you’re clean.” Just as she finished bathing him, Callie returned with another basin of water. “Ger’alin’s saying he’s going to drag you out of this sickroom kicking and screaming soon,” she informed Alayne. “And the rest of the group seems to agree with him. You know you haven’t left for more than a minute since you got here four days ago?” “I’d like to see Ger’alin try that stunt,” Alayne replied, her eyes narrowing. “Here, set that basin down over here on this nightstand and then help me lift and turn him so we can get his head in it.” Callie did as requested and then watched in attentive silence as Alayne finished cleaning Zerith up. The elven woman’s ministrations were so gentle that the man never woke up during the entire treatment. Soon, the two had wrestled clean sheets on the bed and tucked the priest back in. Alayne knuckled her back and stretched tiredly as she walked over to take up her vigil again. “Alayne, you shouldn’t stay inside all the time like this, worrying,” Callie said as Alayne began to sit back down on her stool at the side of the bed. “You only leave to get food for him. You eat only if one of us brings something up to you and watches you eat it. Making yourself sick won’t help him at all.” “I can’t leave him,” Alayne muttered. “Not when it’s my fault he got hurt so badly.” 75


“Alayne, listen to yourself,” Callie sighed. “It is not your fault. You didn’t fire the arrow that hit him. You didn’t do anything to provoke an attack. The only person responsible for Zerith being hurt is the human who launched that arrow.” “I can’t leave him.” “Yes, you can. For an hour, at least. I’ll stay here with him if you want. If anything happens, I’ll have someone get you. But please, just go outside in the sun for an hour,” she pleaded. “Alright, Callie,” Alayne sighed. “I’ll be right outside.” Shoulders slumping in tired defeat, Alayne dragged herself out of the inn and laid down on the warm grass outside, staring up at the sky. She could see the window into Zerith’s room from where she lay. From time to time, she would see Callie peer out the window and shake her head in frustration when she saw Alayne. After a while, Ger’alin walked up to her and stood over her, looking down in the same frustration Callie felt. “This is hardly getting away for an hour,” he said baldly. “I’m not moving from this spot for another half hour,” Alayne returned, her voice chill as ice. “Yes, you are,” Ger’alin said as he reached down and grabbed her arm. Ignoring her squirming to get away, he tossed her easily over his shoulder. “We can do this one of two ways,” he said calmly, in the manner of one stating facts. “You can either keep your dignity or I can carry you off kicking and screaming like a little child. Either way, you are getting away from this inn.” “Put me down!” she ordered. “If you don’t, I’ll…” “You won’t do anything,” he said, cutting her off. “So, kicking and screaming it is.” Ignoring her protests and keeping a firm arm around her so she wouldn’t fall off his shoulder, Ger’alin carried Alayne out of the village and down towards the river. After a few minutes, Alayne stopped fighting and just let him carry her, fuming. Members of their band chuckled as the pair passed them. For all that they respected Alayne and Zerith, everyone agreed that someone needed to get Alayne out of the sickroom before she collapsed and most were content to let Ger’alin do it. “Now, here we are,” he said pleasantly once they’d reached a small campsite near the river. “I will let you down,” he said to the woman bundled on his shoulder, “if and only if you promise to go down to the stream and wash up first. You haven’t bathed since the battle and, frankly, I’ve smelled corpses that were fresher than you. Stop kicking!” he said sternly, “you know it’s true. Callie figured you would be stubborn so she and I carried some clean clothes and soap down here for you.” Turning around so that Alayne could see the river, he continued, “They’re over there in that bundle by the bushes. You go there and clean up while I fix something for you to eat that isn’t soup. I don’t think you’ve eaten anything other than that – and not much of that at all – for days now. Do I have your word? Or do I have to toss you in the river myself?” “You have my word,” she said frostily. Bending his knees, Ger’alin let her down and smiled pleasantly at her fierce scowl. “Wash up first. I promise, I won’t peek. Much,” he teased as he turned to tend the small fire. Alayne stalked over to the river angrily and snatched the bundle up. Moving to the other side of the bushes, she removed her filthy and tattered robes and checked to make sure no one was watching. Ger’alin had his back to her, still tending to the fire. Satisfied that she wouldn’t be seen, she quickly washed herself in the river and put on the robes Callie had bundled up for her. Flinging herself down on the bank of the river, she attacked her wet, but clean, hair with the comb provided. Outraged as she was, she did have to admit that she felt, and smelled, better than she had for days.

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“Are you decent?” Ger’alin called out from the campsite. Alayne ignored him. “If you’re not, it’s your own fault if I see anything you weren’t planning to show me!” he said, his voice growing louder indicating that he was walking towards the river. “I’m fine!” Alayne called out to him. “Ah, good,” he said from the other side of the bushes. “Just in time for lunch. Will you come back and eat some real food, or do I have to drag you back there and shove it down your throat?” “I’ll come,” she sneered coldly. Standing up, she dusted herself off and stalked back to the campsite. Ger’alin followed her, still affecting the pleasant air of a good host. “Have a seat,” he said, pointing to a grass-stuffed pad near the fire. “I hope you like roast venison because I made plenty. Enough to feed an army,” he laughed as he cut a chunk off and put it on a plate. “I’ve stewed some greens for after.” “Why are you doing this?” Alayne asked dully as she took the plate. “Because someone has to. Normally, it’s Zerith but he’s incapacitated for the moment. So, I’ll do it in his place.” Alayne stared at him blankly then looked down at her food without appetite. “Alayne, you have a responsibility now,” Ger’alin said with a sigh as he sat down on the other side of the fire. “Light knows you probably didn’t ask for it, but you have it now and you have to own up to it.” “What are you talking about?” “Back when you and Zerith put together a group of people to take out Dar’khan, you never thought you’d be looked up to as a leader, did you? No, of course not,” he said, seeing her shake her head. “No one does in things like this. But then, after you asked the first person to join you, you became a leader. After all the victories you and Zerith have led us to, you can’t stop leading. Even if you want to – even if you’re tired of it – you can’t stop until it’s all done. You owe it to those who follow you to be the leader they need you to be.” Alayne said nothing. After a moment, she picked up a knife and began eating. She noticed Ger’alin staring at her as she lifted the first bite to her mouth. “You should eat,” she said simply. “If you don’t, you won’t have the strength to talk sense into stubborn women.” ~*~*~*~ “You’re looking a million times better,” Callie remarked as Alayne walked back into the room. The sin’dorei woman just smiled and nodded. “He’s slept the entire time. I was thinking about waking him up to see if he wants something to eat.” “I’ll take care of that,” Alayne said firmly. “You go down to the kitchens and see if they can make up some thick stew for him. Actually, see if they have any meat and vegetables. He’s probably had enough sick-food.” Callie nodded and left the room, elated at the sudden positive change in her friend. For the past several days, Alayne had seemed to be torn in two with guilt over what had happened. Now, her earlier confidence not only seemed to be back in full force, but an air of command that required, and got, immediate respect settled around her. Ger’alin must have some kind of gift for handling Alayne, Callie thought to herself as she set about preparing a hearty supper for the ailing priest. Upstairs, Alayne settled down on the bed next to Zerith and shook him gently until he woke up. “Do you feel like eating?” she asked. “Yes!” he said groggily. “Unless it’s that Light-forsaken soup you’ve been shoveling down my gullet for the past week,” he amended with a tired smile. “I think we can arrange for something different,” she replied with a grin. “And, I think you should be able to get up and go outside for a bit tomorrow. Four days on your back is enough.”

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Zerith nodded in agreement. Inwardly, he’d felt like he could have been up and about today but had not wanted to press the issue with Alayne being so distraught. “What happened to you,” he asked mildly, “to change your mind when you were so firm on me resting this morning?” “Someone talked a little sense into me,” she said with a mysterious smile. “Of course, I’m not going to let you wear yourself out. You can go out tomorrow and get some sun and start moving around a bit, but no worrying about anything until that wound is completely healed.” “Yes, mother. Speaking of worrying about things; what has been bothering you lately?” “Nothing,” Alayne said firmly. “I was just being silly. Ger’alin explained a few things to me and I see that clearly now. And no, I’m not going to tell you about it,” she said, forestalling him, “because it was silly and you don’t need to worry about me. You need to worry about yourself.” “I see. Will you at least tell me how the news of our attacks was received?” “No. I’ll let Callie tell you that,” she said as the Forsaken re-entered the room with a plate of roasted chicken and a pile of steamed greens. “Tell you what?” Callie asked as she set the plate on the table next to the bed. Zerith pulled himself up and, with a little help from Alayne, was soon sitting up comfortably and digging into his meal with zest. “He wants to know what Drum Fel thought when you reported that the ogres, trolls, and humans will no longer be a concern in the Highlands.” “Well, like I told Alayne earlier. Drum Fel took the news well. Especially after we reattached his jaw. Alright, alright, I’ll be serious,” she said in response to an annoyed look from Zerith. “After we finished escorting the prisoners to the Wetlands, Ger’alin, Davril, and I returned to Hammerfall. Drum Fel thought we were the only survivors at first and was getting ready to put us in our places for our foolishness. Davril cut him off, though. The look on that old orc’s face was priceless. ‘Master Fel,’ he said in that raspy, sarcastic tone he’s got, ‘you may want to request reinforcements from Undercity, Silvermoon, and Orgrimmar. There’s a rather large human city that needs a Horde occupation.’ It was all downhill from there. Ger’alin told him that the Witherbark trolls had been run out of their village and that the ogres would think twice before returning to Arathi. I think that alone would have been enough to shock a few decades off Fel’s life but when Ger’alin started in on the attack against the humans, I thought the old orc’s eyes were going to pop right out of his skull. By the time we finished giving our report, I think everyone in Hammerfall was gathered around. Those green hulks let out a cheer that I figured you would have heard back here and Drum Fel muttered that he would send word to the Warchief about our victories. I told him to where we would be and why and he ordered for wyverns to be set aside for all of us to use to get here. He was actually smiling when we left. Whether it was because we cleared out the Highlands or because we were leaving, I couldn’t tell you.” “I wish I could have seen it,” Zerith laughed as he lifted the last bit of greens to his mouth. “Tell me about the battle in Stromgarde. I was somewhat unconscious for most of it.” “There’s not much to tell,” Alayne interrupted smoothly. “One of the guards shot you. Some of the priests and fighters got you back here. The rest of us moved in, attacked the guard force in Stromgarde, and defeated them. Ger’alin ordered the survivors to leave as part of the terms of surrender. He escorted them to the border of the Wetlands while I came back here to see how you were. That’s all there is to tell,” she said, shooting a look at Callie that promised dire consequences should the woman contradict her. “Well, I will have to watch for archers from now on,” Zerith said as he leaned back against the pillows propping him up. “But I’d much rather watch for dessert if there is any.” 78


“We’ll go and get you some,” Alayne said, motioning for Callie to follow her. Zerith sighed contentedly. There was more to it than Alayne was telling him but pressing the issue would do no good. She would open up to him when she was ready. All he could do was wait. ~*~*~*~ “It feels so good to be outside again,” Zerith said happily. “Really, I don’t think I’m going back to bed for a while now.” “We’ll see how it goes,” Callie replied in the same tone. “But you have been laid up too long, I think.” “Don’t start,” Alayne said warningly. “All I did was follow the Apothecaries’ orders. I’m no healer to know when a person is healed enough or not.” “No one’s blaming you, Alayne,” Zerith said soothingly. “You did what you thought was right. Now, let’s just sit out here in the wonderful, warm sunshine and enjoy it.” The three sat down on the soft grass just outside the village of Tarren Mill. Zerith closed his eyes and turned his face to the light, drinking in the warmth and fresh air that had been tempting him from his bedroom window. Alayne lay on her stomach next to him, idly flipping through a book on fel magic. Callie had brought a few whetstones with her and was honing the edge of her daggers. Occasionally, one of the number who had fought alongside them would stop by to chat for a few moments, delighted to see the three up and about. Any inquiries about the next conquest were met with “We will discuss it when the time comes,” from Alayne who never looked up from her reading. “Now here’s a sight for sore eyes!” Ger’alin called out to them as he strode across the village. “So you finally talked the ladies into letting you out, Zerith.” “I think you had more to do with it than I did,” he laughed in return. “Come join us? I think I might ask them to let me have some of the food we dragged out with us.” “I’ll take you up on that offer. I had wanted to come and speak with you anyway.” “What about?” Alayne asked, glancing up from her reading. “About us,” he replied, gesturing to encircle the entire town. “Some of us were talking and thinking that maybe we should have a name for ourselves. Something to strike fear into the hearts of our enemies and command respect from our allies.” “That sounds very official,” Zerith whistled. “I mean, having a strike force consisting of a few adventurers is one thing. You sound like you’re wanting to start an army. I don’t know that the powers-that-be would like that.” “I don’t think they’ll mind, Zerith,” Ger’alin argued. “After all, you’ve already organized a group. Giving it a name just gives people a way to refer to it other than ‘that group of people that Zerith and Alayne put together who have overcome Dar’khan, Arugal, the Alliance of Lordaeron, Dalaranian meddlers, ogres, the Witherbark trolls, oh and let us not forget Stromgarde.’” “I rather like that name,” Callie interjected. “It’s nice, short, and to the point.” “Do you have something in mind already, Ger’alin?” Alayne asked, setting her book aside and sitting up. “Not really,” he admitted. “You and Zerith are the idea people.” “Hm,” Zerith mused. “How about ‘Children of Quel’Thalas?’” “That kind of leaves me out,” Callie pointed out. “Followers of Kael’thas?” “Same problem.” “Random group of sin’dorei, Forsaken, tauren, trolls, and orcs?” Alayne joked. “Too long.” “How about ‘Order of Azeroth?’” Callie suggested. 79


“That sounds too official,” Zerith said dismissively. “Okay, then,” Alayne retorted, “how about the Disorder of Azeroth? It doesn’t sound too official, it’s short, inclusive, and hopefully the powers-that-be won’t take it too seriously.” “I can live with that,” Ger’alin acquiesced. “Me too.” “Then I guess we’ll go with that,” Zerith agreed. “So, shall we eat?”

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Chapter Five: A Warlock’s Trials

T

hrall sat wearily behind his desk composing a letter he truly didnot wish to write. No matter what Sylvanas said, he still didn’t trust the so-called “children of the blood.” It would be a long time before the Silvermoon government had earned his trust. He still remembered fighting elves when they were part of the Alliance. Even if they had abandoned their old ties with the humans who had betrayed them and left them for dead, Thrall still felt uneasy about allowing them entry into the Horde. Being forced to deal with elves and their needless formalities, even if just by letter, was enough to irritate the normally placid Warchief. “Warchief,” came a voice from the entrance to Thrall’s office, requesting admittance. “Come in,” Thrall grunted, glad to be distracted from such a distasteful task. “Word has just reached us from the Arathi Highlands. A messenger arrived just a few minutes ago from Drum Fel. He would like to speak with you.” “Send him in.” A young orc stomped into the room and raised his fist to his chest, saluting his Warchief. “Make your report,” Thrall ordered briskly. “The Arathi Highlands, save for a few remnants of farmers, belong to the Horde, Chieftain,” the orc said evenly. “The ogres and their Witherbark allies have been driven out, as have the last of the humans holding Stromgarde. Drum Fel requests additional forces be sent to him to oversee the occupation of Stromgarde and its rebuilding. He has also sent his suggested plan for a campaign to completely remove any Alliance presence from Lordaeron,” the soldier said as he handed a package over to Thrall. The Warchief’s eyes widened in shock and his jaw dropped lower with every sentence. After a moment of stunned silence, Thrall regained control and said gruffly, “How did this come about?” The Warchief managed to hide his shock as the soldier recounted the tale of a sin’dorei and Forsaken-led force overcoming the Horde’s enemies in Lordaeron. He remembered when the three had come before him with news of Dar’khan’s death and Argual’s defeat. He had been impressed that such an unlikely trio could command warriors and develop the battle plans rumor had them designing. “The Disorder of Azeroth?” Thrall muttered good-naturedly, amused and appreciative of the name. “You may go,” he said, dismissing the messenger. “Return tomorrow morning, early. I will have messages for you to deliver to Silvermoon, Undercity, and to this ‘Disorder of Azeroth.’” The orc saluted his chieftain and stomped out of the room. Thrall turned back to his desk, crumbling the letter he had been writing and, pulling up fresh parchment, began penning new missives. This group of adventurers needed to be put on a leash. A light leash, to be sure, but leashed nonetheless. As the Warchief worked through the dusk penning orders, suggestions, and making plans to take advantage of the situation in Lordaeron, he would find himself smiling. Disorder of Azeroth indeed. ~*~*~*~ Jez’ral guided his steed down the road into Tarren Mill. Word had reached him in Silvermoon the night before of his young student, Alayne, a promising warlock he had 81


recruited in Menethil some months before. She had risen high in such a short time for one so young. Before the destruction of the Sunwell, an elf maid her age would still be living in her father’s home and attending school. But then, almost all of those who had answered the summons to return to Quel’Thalas were children, their elders having been slaughtered by the Scourge or succumbed to the loss of the Sunwell. Jez’ral dismissed his thoughts and focused on the present. Pulling up to a passing tauren, he hailed the fellow, asking “Where could I find a young elven woman called Alayne?” The tauren eyed the blood elf distrustfully. “Who asks?” he replied. “Jez’ral Cloudslasher. Her teacher,” the man replied calmly though his green eyes showed the effort of maintaining his demeanor.“I merely wish to speak with her on matters related to her training.” “You’ll find her over by the river,” the tauren said evenly. Jez’ral held his tongue. If he had not been ordered to be cordial, he would have fried the oversized bull where he stood. With an overly formal bow, Jez’ral clucked to his demonic steed, urging him on to the river. “All men snore,” he overheard a raspy female voice saying pleasantly as he neared a group of four. “Zerith just snores really loud.” “Oh, let him sleep,” a familiar female voice replied. “Ever since we let him start getting up, he’s been wearing himself out in the mornings, running around finding herbs for the Apothecaries. And no, all men do not snore.” “Yes, we do,” Jez’ral said pleasantly, amused. He was pleased that Alayne had broken out of her normally reserved and uncertain shell and made friends. The three who were awake jumped and turned in fright at the unfamiliar voice. “Ah, Alayne. I’ve found you at last.” “What do you want and who are you?” the other elf, a male swordsman asked, his eyes narrowing. “Hush, Ger’alin,” Alayne muttered, eyeing her companion in annoyance. “Jez’ral, why have you been looking for me?” she said, standing and offering a polite curtsy. “Word has reached us in Silvermoon of what you’ve accomplished, Alayne. Your other teachers and I feel that it is time for you to advance further in the Art. You are to return with me immediately so we can get started. Don’t worry. We won’t keep you long,” he said, smiling inwardly. The elven woman had paled at his first sentence and her expression grew more and more uncertain with each word. “I see,” she said when he finished. “Callie, you and Ger’alin look after the others. Keep an eye on Zerith. Tell him where I’ve gone and that I’ll be back soon.” “Of course we will,” Callie and Ger’alin said as they stood up to hug their friend good-bye. Once the hasty farewells were finished, Alayne started to head back to the inn to gather her few belongings. “You won’t be gone long enough to need anything,” Jez’ral told her. “Just come up here and we’ll be off,” he said, sticking out a hand to lift her up on the demon horse. Once she was seated behind him, her arms around his waist so she would not fall off, he clucked to the horse again and laughed when she gasped at the speed. “Don’t be surprised, my dear,” he chuckled. “You’ll be commanding one of these soon.” ~*~*~*~ “Wake up, Zerith. You’ve slept most of the afternoon away,” Ger’alin laughed as he roused his friend. “I’m awake,” Zerith muttered, squeezing his eyes more tightly closed. “No need to dislocate my shoulder.” Opening his eyes, he glanced around. “Did Callie and Alayne get bored listening to me snore?” 82


“Callie did. She went off to see if she could sneak up on something good for supper tonight. I’ll never understand why she won’t just learn to use a bow or a rifle for hunting. It does not take all the fun out of it,” he muttered absent-mindedly. “She’ll be back along shortly, no doubt covered in blood and complaining about her leathers being torn by claws or antlers. Alayne was summoned back to Silvermoon by some fellow wearing velvets and riding a horse out of nightmare. Oh, don’t look at me like that. She knew the man. I think he was a teacher of hers. He mentioned something about her needing further training.” “Thanks, Ger’alin, but in the future, leave scaring centuries off my life to Alayne. I adopted her with that in mind. She won’t like you doing her job while she’s away. Did she say when she will be returning?” “Honestly, I half expected her back by now the way that fellow was saying it wouldn’t take long. Tomorrow, maybe,” he shrugged. “Hmph,” Zerith replied, acknowledging the statement without commenting further. “We can’t just keep sitting here,” he said after a long pause. “I know. I was just about to suggest getting up and going to see if Callie’s come back with supper.” “No, not that. Light, Ger’alin, do you think about anything other than food or fighting? I meant that we need to find something useful to do. I’m almost completely healed now; I need to rebuild what stamina I lost convalescing. And, while we did pretty much hand the Arathi Highlands over to the Horde, there’s still more we could be doing to prove ourselves.” “I think of plenty of things other than food and fighting,” Ger’alin laughed, “but I agree, we do need to stop sitting around watching the clouds pass by. There just isn’t much to do around here. The Apothecaries don’t want us to clean out the farmers in Hillsbrad because they’re using them to test some of their concoctions on. The only other real threats here are bears, mountain lions, and yeti and good luck getting rid of any of those. I doubt the Scourge could do it. There are ogres up in Alterac, though, but we’d need the whole Disorder of Azeroth to clear them out and most of the others have gone their own ways. It would take time to reassemble them.” “Well, where else could we go to be of use?” “Are you two bored?” Callie asked as she walked up behind them. “Yes,” Zerith said simply as he turned to face her. “Oh, hello there,” he said, greeting the sin’dorei paladin standing next to the Forsaken. “This is Dar’ja,” Callie said, pointing to the elven woman beside her. “She’s bored too.” “Dar’ja!” Ger’alin laughed sarcastically as he stood up and held out his hand in greeting. “What a pleasure to run into you outside the gates of Silvermoon.” “I’m sure,” she said frostily. “Still up to nothing worthwhile, I see.” “Same old Dar’ja,” Ger’alin laughed again, an edge of sarcasm sharpening his humor. “Still thinks she’s the greatest sin’dorei since Kael’thas. So, what has you in such a mood today?” “Like Zerith, I am tired of sitting around here being of no use. I had hoped that the leader of our forces would have some insight on where we could be of use, but I guess I was mistaken.” “Wait just a minute,” Zerith said, pulling himself off the ground and glaring down at the woman, “I do not appreciate your implication that I’m some lazy oaf. Now, no, I don’t have any specific plans for the force at this time. I don’t like acting without some level of forethought.” He shot Callie a withering look when she snickered at that. “But if you want something to do, why don’t you drop the little-miss-high-and-mighty act and come along with me to see if there’s anything we can do to help the Royal Apothecary Society in their 83


endeavors here in Hillsbrad? Or is that too lowly a task for someone following in the great Uther’s footsteps?” he sneered angrily. Dar’ja stared at him, her eyes twin icy green flames and her face a picture of tightlycontrolled outrage. “Certainly, my Commander,” she replied in a tone matching his own. The two stalked off to Tarren Mill side by side. “Okay, that wasn’t such a good idea,” Callie muttered to herself as she watched them storm off. “I had wanted their help hunting. Stupid deer keep getting away before I can stab them.” “Oh, it was a good idea. The best you’ve had in a while,” Ger’alin said with a faint smile. “Come then, my undead friend, if there isn’t any deer to be caught, we can always try for fish.” ~*~*~*~ “I don’t know why you have to be so stubborn,” Dar’ja muttered. “I could have climbed that tree just as well as you. My aim is probably better, too,” she sighed as she rubbed the side of her head. “Well, my aim has suffered since I was shot,” Zerith said with a mix of apology and exasperation. The sin’dorei woman was getting on his nerves. “Still, I did warn you to move.” “At least we got this…whatever it is,” she sighed, picking up an oversized cone. “Did they say what they wanted it for?” “No. I know the uses of a cone similar to this one, though. There’s one like it that grows on the trees in the Hinterlands near AeriePeak. That one, once boiled down into a thick paste, makes an excellent local anesthetic. My mother used to use it in cases where she or my father needed to cut the skin to remove some growth or embedded object. The person would never feel a thing.” “Are you an Apothecary as well?” “No. My parents just taught me herb-lore along with my other lessons.” “That’s amazing,” Dar’ja said sincerely. “Not really,” Zerith said modestly, “herbs are not that hard to learn. I’m sure your parents taught you things that I would find incredible as well.” Dar’ja’s face clouded over for a second before she forced it back to her normal, closed expression. “My parents didn’t have time to teach me much of anything,” she said, trying to make light of it. “They were too busy being dead.” “I’m sorry.” “Why apologize? It wasn’t you that killed them,” Dar’ja snapped. “Well I’m sorry for apologizing!” Zerith retorted angrily. “Light, woman, what is it with you and your attitude?” Dar’ja said nothing as she strode on ahead angrily. Zerith took off after her, grabbing her arm and forcing her to a stop once he caught up with her. “I’m serious,” he snarled. “For the past few hours, whenever I have done anything that any other normal person would consider ‘polite’ or ‘courteous’ or just ‘nice,’ you’ve taken offense. No,” he corrected himself, “whenever I’ve done anything, you’ve found some way to get angry about it.” “You priests are all the same,” she spat, reaching up and pulling his hand off her arm. “Just what is that supposed to mean?” he called out after her as she staked back into Tarren Mill. With an angry sigh, he followed after her. The Apothecaries, at least, would be glad to see him return. ~*~*~*~ 84


“You’re not serious,” Callie said incredulously as she cast her line back into the river. “I’ve never been more serious in my life,” Ger’alin said, hiding a grin. “I don’t believe you,” she replied, watching the bobber on her line intently. “You’re just trying to get me to look away so I won’t catch that fish that’s been teasing me for the past hour.” “I would never lie to a lady,” he returned courteously. “The entire tale is true, from beginning to end. Except for the parts that aren’t,” he amended. “The whole thing stinks of fabrication,” she laughed. “Which parts aren’t true?” “I did exaggerate the bit about the fight with the threshdon at the end. It was probably only fifty feet long and not seventy.” “Bah! No fish…” she started to say. “That woman is the most infuriating, irritating excuse for a servant of the Light I have ever come across in all of my life!” Zerith shouted, cutting Callie off. The Forsaken woman leapt to her feet at the first words, looking around as if expecting an attack. “I see you had a pleasant afternoon with Dar’ja,” Ger’alin said smoothly. “She’s a wonderful girl, isn’t she? Really knows how to make a fellow feel appreciated.” “Shut up, Ger’alin,” Zerith muttered. Callie sat back down, careful to keep her back to the priest so he wouldn’t see the laughter lurking in her eyes. “Have a seat, Zerith. We’re just trying to catch supper,” she said, patting the ground. “Ger’alin can tell you this wonderful story about how he and the Theramore guard force fought some oversized fish that was eating ships. It’s a pack of lies, but it’s an entertaining pack of lies.” “I’m not in the mood to hear it,” the priest said sullenly. “Well, what are you in the mood for?” Ger’alin asked politely. “After spending more than five hours picking flowers with Dar’ja, I’d be in the mood for a nice, rousing bit of being stretched on the rack by those Scarlet Crusaders. But then, that’s just me.” “Ger’alin, how can anyone so arrogant, so self-absorbed, so…pig-headed ever wield the powers of the Light?” Zerith asked in annoyance. “Beats the hell out of me,” Ger’alin answered as he recast his line. “I’m hardly the specialist when it comes to anything remotely magical in nature.” “There you are,” the object of discussion said snidely from a short distance behind the three. “Did you manage to get that oversized cone to the Apothecaries before returning to these wastrels?” “Good afternoon to you too, Dar’ja,” Ger’alin said, careful to keep his gaze on the river. “I thought I heard your dulcet tones calling out a warm greeting. Please, feel free to join us. We’re just trying to reel in supper.” “I didn’t come here to talk with you, Ger’alin,” she said angrily. “I came to see if Zerith finished what we set out to do. I won’t stand for some priest making me look bad.” “I gave the cone to the Apothecaries right after I got back,” Zerith snarled, jumping angrily to his feet. “I also gave them the moss they wanted after that. And the herbs they needed to counteract the side effects of the moss. I managed to get all of that by myself. Without your help,” he added sarcastically. Dar’ja stared down at him, her face expressionless. “I see,” she said calmly after a pause. “It seems I misjudged you somewhat, priest.” Zerith just stared at her angrily. “Allow me to make amends,” she said, her voice smaller and quieter. “I’ll buy you supper.” “That would be nice,” the priest muttered as he stalked up the hill. Callie and Ger’alin held their breath, and their laughter, until the pair were long gone. “Five gold on it,” Ger’alin said, laughing until tears ran down his face. “I saw that one coming the minute she walked up to us earlier.” 85


“I’m not taking that bet,” Callie replied. “I’ve seen the same thing too many times myself. Now, I think we have enough fish. Let’s get them frying, shall we?” “That sounds like a good idea. While they’re cooking, I’ll tell you about this old witch who lives in the Marsh. They say she can…” ~*~*~*~ Zerith glanced around the room, feeling somewhat out of place. He’d rarely eaten here when he was pursuing his studies in Silvermoon, feeling that such extravagance was unbecoming a servant of the Light. His fellow novices had felt differently; often teasing him about his refusal to visit what was considered one of the finest establishments in the city. “Did you come here often?” Dar’ja asked, trying awkwardly to break the ice. “No.” “Oh.” “Did you?” “Not really.” “Oh.” The two sat in uncomfortable silence for several minutes longer. “I’d like to…” Dar’ja began. “Why did you…” Zerith started to say at the same time. “You first,” he said, motioning for her to continue. “I’d like to apologize,” she began, looking down at the table. “Apology accepted,” he said. Again, they sat in awkward silence. “So…” Dar’ja tried again, “what is a man like you doing hanging around someone like Ger’alin?” “Why do you hate him so much?” Zerith asked, forcing himself to remain calm and civil. “I don’t hate him,” Dar’ja replied simply. “He and I just don’t get along.” “I can’t see why. You’re such a lovely person.” “Zerith, I know how I am. I don’t see why you are judging me so harshly, though. You’re no better. You priests are worse, actually. Going around mouthing platitudes about obedience and the like to the Light when you know that it has forsaken our people.” “What are you talking about?” Zerith asked in confusion. “Come on, you can be honest here. There are no outsiders. Only Blood Knights and priests come here. The others aren’t welcome.” “I honestly have no idea what you are hinting at. The Light has never abandoned me. The Sunwell; yes. It was destroyed. But the Light was with me and helped me handle the withdrawal until Kael’thas sent out word on how to control our arcane addiction.” “This is why I can’t stand you priests,” Dar’ja muttered sullenly. “You lie even to those of us who know the truth!” “Dar’ja, I swear by the Light, by the sun, by my father’s name; I do not know what you are talking about.” The paladin stared at him intensely for several long minutes, a weighing look that seemed to try to bore into his mind to determine whether or not he was being honest. He returned her gaze with a frank and open look of his own. “You really don’t know,” she stated flatly. “Are all of your brethren this ignorant?” “I’m hardly ‘ignorant’ even if I don’t know what has you so upset,” he answered politely. “So could you please enlighten me so we can clear up whatever misconceptions you have?”

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“How did you manage to keep your faith after all that the Light let happen to our people?” she asked. “You can’t blame the Light for that,” he replied. “All people are free to make their own choices. For the Light to have prevented the destruction of Quel’Thalas during the last war, the Scourge would have had to have been slaves of the Light instead of the Lich King. But, slavery is contrary to the Light, as you should know.” “You are…very different than what I expected.” “I can’t say that you are exactly what I expected to find in a paladin either. Why all this theological discourse? I thought you would have had the same training as a priestess but would be more zealous with it since you’re also trained in combat. Why the near-blasphemy over my faith in the Light?” “Because…I had assumed…I know nothing of priest training,” she stammered. “I thought everyone knew about the Blood Knights…and that’s why so many disapprove of us for all that they turn to us for protection. I thought you were like the others.” “Dar’ja, we’ve been down this path already,” Zerith said mildly. “I know. I’m still surprised that you don’t know about the Blood Knights. I truly thought everyone knew.” “What is it that you think I knew?” he asked, a tinge of exasperation entering his voice. The woman could talk in circles better than Alayne did! Dar’ja took a deep breath and, starting at the beginning, told him about the naaru being held by the Blood Knights in Silvermoon. About its mystical Light-driven energy. About how the Blood Knights had learned to wrest the powers of the Light away from it and use them without having to undergo the intense training and study that the paladins of the Alliance undertook before receiving their blessing from the Light. Zerith’s eyes grew wider and wider in horrified shock as she drew closer to the end. Once she finished, he was staring at her, aghast. “And you thought I would do anything like that?” he said breathlessly. “Oh come on,” she muttered irritably. “Your best friend is a warlock. You associate with the Forsaken quite merrily. What else was I supposed to think other than you were just like us, like so many other sin’dorei priests who have found sources other than the Light for their powers?” “Don’t drag Alayne or Callie into this. Alayne turned down the path she’s taken out of desperation to help our people. She’d return to mage studies in a heartbeat if she could. Callie was infected with the plague. You, on the other hand, help hold some poor being hostage and torture it for powers that you have not truly earned.” “It’s not really a being,” Dar’ja protested. “More like some object that acts as a nexus for Light energy. I, too, was desperate for some way to help our people. That’s why I studied under Lady Liadrin. Don’t condemn me for the very thing you’re willing to forgive others for.” “Well, that explains your whole attitude towards everyone except Ger’alin,” Zerith muttered finally, seeing her point. “Ger’alin and I just don’t get along.” “I can see that.” The two stood up from the table, having finished their meals during the course of their conversation. They walked in uncomfortable silence through Silvermoon, heading back towards the orb that would take them to Undercity. Zerith would peer around from time to time, as if looking for someone. Dar’ja questioned him about it after a while. “I’m half expecting to see Alayne,” he replied. “I wonder where she is.” “I’m sure she’s fine,” Dar’ja said politely. “I’d like to…thank you for an interesting evening.” 87


“My pleasure,” Zerith returned lightly. “Perhaps tomorrow we could look around Hillsbrad and Alterac for ways to help our people and the Horde? Callie and Ger’alin must be going crazy from inaction.” “That would be nice,” Dar’ja said with a smile. “Thank you.” ~*~*~*~ “You are back rather late,” Ger’alin said groggily. “Callie gave up and left to sleep an hour ago. Alayne still hasn’t returned.” “I didn’t see her in Silvermoon,” Zerith replied. “Go on. I don’t need you to watch me sleep no matter what Alayne made you promise.” “Oh, I don’t doubt that,” Ger’alin said as he rubbed his eyes and forehead. “But I’d like to know why you’re all lit up. Did Dar’ja get eaten by crows or something?” “No,” Zerith laughed. “She and I had a pleasant dinner and cleared the air between us. She really is a fascinating person once you get her to drop the Queen of Ice act.” “Oh ho, so that’s how it is,” Ger’alin laughed. “Oh, it’s nothing like that,” Zerith muttered irritably. “Get your mind out of the gutter and get out of here. I’d like to get on to sleep now if you don’t mind. I have a busy day planned for tomorrow.” Ger’alin slipped out of the inn, returning to his tent and bedroll by the river. Zerith hurriedly changed into his sleeping robes and climbed into the bed. She’s not such a bad person, he was thinking to himself as he drifted off. You just have to get to know her. Outside, Ger’alin passed by Callie’s tent on his way to his own. He stood outside, listening for a sign that she was awake. She’d won the bet that night; Ger’alin had been certain that Dar’ja and Zerith wouldn’t have patched up their rocky start quite so quickly. He’d figured it would take another week before they’d warm up to each other. Hearing nothing to indicate the Forsaken remained awake, Ger’alin tiptoed out of her small camp and made his way to his own. Pulling off his boots and jerkin, he wrapped himself in his blanket and lay down on the cool ground to sleep. I’d really thought she’d be back by now. I hope she’s alright. I wonder what Zerith has planned, he thought as sleep rolled over him. ~*~*~*~ Alayne managed to hold down her nausea. Barely. She didn’t know whether it was worse if she had her eyes open or shut. All of her energy and dignity was wrapped up in not screaming at the top of her lungs whenever the wyvern gave any indication that they were anywhere other than on the nice, safe, firm ground. She was getting better at handling this flying business, she thought to herself. She’d actually been able to force herself on the zeppelin without fainting. Of course, the fact that Jez’ral had been with her and that she didn’t think he would tolerate her phobias for a second may have had something to do with that, she allowed. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the White Lady rising over the ocean. Normally, she’d have been asleep by now. However, her teachers wanted her to move quickly on with the next stage of her studies and she was in no position to argue. Especially not after they hinted that she might be able to travel through the Dark Portal and aid their people in Outland if she continued on at the pace she was going. “Light!” Alayne whimpered as the wyvern descended quickly towards the ground. The flight from Orgrimmar to Ratchet was short. Once the beast had landed, Alayne climbed off its back and handed the reins over to the goblin in charge of the wyvern stables for

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Ratchet. Jez’ral smiled at her and motioned for her to follow him as he strode quickly up the hill to the north of the town. “You’re late,” a man said, his voice deep as the shadows surrounding the tower on top of the hill. “We came as quickly as we could. Do not hold me, or my student, to fault for the foibles of goblin technology,” Jez’ral said impatiently. “She doesn’t look like much,” the speaker said as he stepped into the light. “A little pale elf maiden. She should be tending her mother’s garden, not trying to impress me with a few simple conjurations.” Alayne’s eyes widened in anger. It was bad enough that she’d been taken away from her friends on no notice at all. Worse still that she’d had to set foot on that Light-forsaken zeppelin. On top of that, she’d had to fly, on some winged beast’s back, to this barelyconstructed town. Further, Jez’ral had told her in Orgrimmar that she wouldn’t be sleeping tonight. Thinking of that added its own flare to her fiery temper. “That’s better,” the man said, his pleasure audible. “I’d heard that your rage had potential. Now, listen well, elf maid. Beginning this night, you will face two trials. These will prepare you for what you will face in the future as you continue to study our Art. Only after you have completed both trials will you be allowed to advance further. Fail either of them and you will most likely die. Should that happen, we will not mourn you. We never mourn the loss of a weakling.” “What are these trials?” Alayne asked angrily, not allowing herself to feel afraid. “The first trial involves gathering the items needed to force a felhunter out of the Nether. You will need to find the Tome of the Cabal and at least three Rods of Channeling used by the necromantic Dragonmaw orcs and return here with them. Only then will you be able to face down a felhunter and prove your mastery over that class of demon.” “The other?” “You will then need to bring us a cleansed summoning orb. The Burning Blade warlocks in Desolace carry an orb that can be cleansed. You will also need to wrest the soul from an infernal. Bring both here and you will be able to prove your mastery over the infernals who walk the Nether.” “Very well,” Alayne said, accepting the task. “One last thing,” the man said with a dark grin. “You must complete these trials unaided. My associate, Jez’ral, may accompany you only to witness your success – or failure. He will not aid you in any way. Only such aid as you can command from the Twisting Nether will be allowed. Understand that once you ascend to this level, you can only rely on yourself. No one else can help you. No one else will understand you. They’ll hate and envy you. Beyond here, you are truly alone.” “I understand. I will see you again in the light of the morning sun, human,” Alayne tossed over her shoulder as she stalked down the hill. She could hear the man’s laughter echoing after her as she all but ran to her wyvern. Jez’ral followed behind her, an amused smile on his face. Without a word, the two mounted their wyverns and set out for Desolace. ~*~*~*~ “I know you can’t help me,” Alayne told Jez’ral as the two made their way out of ShadowpreyVillage on the southwestern coast of Desolace, “but could you give me a hint of where to find this ‘Tome of the Cabal?’ I have a good idea of where the Dragonmaw orcs can be found. I grew up not far from one of their hideouts.” “The Tome of the Cabal was stolen from Undercity by a foolish human woman who thought to make her name by swearing allegiance to the Burning Legion and becoming a 89


warlock in the Burning Blade cult. We traced word of her to the Burning Blade stronghold here in Desolace. Strahad, the human you impressed so much back in Ratchet,” he clarified, “decided to set getting the Tome back as the trial of the next highly talented warlock to come across his path.” “So, I’m wrong in thinking that this book contains extremely powerful rites and spells concerning felhunters?” “Not entirely. It does contain some of that, among other things. However, you wouldn’t be able to read it. At least, not yet. There’s a warding laid on the Tome so that only the most advanced of our order can decipher the text. That’s part of why the thief brought it to the Burning Blade. She couldn’t read it; she was, perhaps, hoping one of them could.” “I see. Well, I will tell you my plan for how to get this book back. After that, I will put my plan into action and you will wait for me here,” she said, gesturing to a cleft in the mountain. You can hide there and not have to worry about anyone seeing you unless you advertise yourself. If I’m not back by noon tomorrow, consider me dead and let Zerith know that I went out fighting.” “Very well,” Jez’ral said, a tight smile on his lips to mask the anxiety he felt. Still, she squared her shoulders with confidence and held her head high. The elf maiden had an air of command about her now. He’d seen hints of it when he’d first seen her in Menethil Harbor. Now, it seemed to settle about her like a well-worn cloak. Signs of the vulnerable elfmaid he recalled from their first meeting still clung about her, but less and less of them remained. “Tell me your plan.” As she detailed her plan to retrieve the book, his smile deepened. His student was a truly remarkable young woman. ~*~*~*~ Alayne used the cloak of night to mask her movements through the area called Mannoroc Coven. Most of the members of the Burning Blade cult where in bed but a few guards patrolled the more well-lit passages, not looking too closely for intruders. They obviously trusted their reputation to keep people away. The elf woman rolled her eyes as a noisy patrol passed by her hiding spot. The Burning Legion must not require much intelligence to join its cause. Just ahead and to her right lay the doorway she needed to take to enter the cult’s library. She had overheard a pair of guards talking about it when she first entered the area. The tome she sought would most likely be there. The only other place it would be would require a change in plans. She waited until the patrol disappeared behind the building and then made her move. On silent feet, she walked swiftly to the door of the library and opened it a crack. Looking around the room, she saw no one. Without letting herself rethink the idea, she opened the door all the way and entered, closing the door behind her. “I must move quickly,” she whispered to herself. “They may be stupid, but surely someone will check on the library.” Steeling herself, she began scanning the bookshelves, reaching out to the Nether to test for the resonance that existed around all arcane tomes. Each book would have its own flavor; books on the arcane arts crackled with electricity. Those on the elemental arts had a primordial feel. Tomes reserved for the mastery of shadow magics felt slick, as if they were lightly coated with oil. Moving through the room, she located several likely candidates and, thumbing through them, soon had the one she sought. Tucking it into her belt pouch, she smiled to herself, relieved to have the task done so quickly and easily. She turned back towards the door, intent on making her way out before she was discovered. Her eyes widened in shock and dismay when she saw a tall figure blocking her exit.

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“You move well, for a woman,” it whispered, reaching back to pull back its hood. An elven man smiled at her, his expression amused. “Too bad you never stopped to think that we would ward our tomes against outsiders.” Alayne stood silent, her back against the wall, searching desperately for a way out that would not bring the entire Coven down on her head. Bitterly, she realized that the only exit was the one blocked by the traitorous elf. Focusing her mind, she began the steps to summon shadowflame to burn the man to ash. As if reading her thoughts, the man moved quickly across the room and, with a motion, rendered her mute. Alayne tried to scream but her voice would not work. “A useful curse,” the man said pleasantly. “Especially against those like you who are completelydependent on magic. You can’t cast, you can’t scream, you can’t do anything except writhe in horror until I lift the curse. Of course,” he said, after a moment’s thought, “if you had been a fighter, I’d have to use this one as well,” he said, muttering words Alayne recognized. She tried to shriek as she felt her body growing leaden, as if it were too heavy for her bones to hold. Slumping against the wall, she fought to remain standing. “Very amusing!” the man laughed. He continued to walk towards her until he was standing inches from her. He grabbed her arms, roughly, shaking her until her face was turned up towards his. “If you continue to amuse me, I might let you live and serve the Legion,” he whispered, pressing his body against hers. Terrified panic shot through Alayne as she realized what his intentions were. Her mouth opened in silent screams as the man tore at her robes. With what little strength she still possessed, she struggled against him, hampering his efforts. Adrenaline surged through her and, her fumbling hands finding her dagger, she managed to overcome the curse on her muscles long enough to plant her dagger in the elf’s back. He jerked away from her in pain and anger, his eyes blazing like fire. “If you want to play rough…” he threatened, beginning to summon fire to burn her to ash. Rage surged through her, a rage remembered from Stromgarde, and she lurched forward, slashing at him with her dagger. Again and again she slashed and stabbed, losing herself in her own raging bloodlust. Sometime later, Alayne could not say how long, she managed to pull herself up on wobbly legs. Pulling her robes back into some semblance of neatness, she wiped her bloody dagger on the cloak of what had been an elven man, sheathed it, and began to make her way out of the Coven’s territory. Before she made it to the entrance of the library, she remembered, with cold detachment, that the cult members carried an orb she needed for one of her tasks.Alayne returned to the body and searched through its pockets until she found the object she needed. Her hands shook violently as she pocketed the orb. Though her mind was calm, her body was panicking with the memory of what he had tried to do to her. Sitting until she could force herself to stop shaking, she focused on mundane things while praying that the other guards would not return soon. Once she had managed to calm her trembling limbs enough to walk, she rose and left the building, leaving only a hacked up corpse to attest that she had been there at all. ~*~*~*~ Once outside of the Coven’s hold, Alayne let herself slump against a rock. Her muscles felt like jelly and her bones had turned to water. Horrified at what had happened, what she had done, and the argument raging inside of her, she rocked herself back and forth, wishing that there were someone who could comfort her. “You don’t need comforting. You did nothing wrong,” part of her said. “He deserved what you gave him. More, even.” You don’t understand. It’s not that I killed him. It’s that I reveled in it! 91


“Quit being such a child. So, you killed a man. A man who, if you hadn’t killed him, would probably be making you scream for mercy about now.” Stop it! “No. You stop it. Every time you let loose a little righteous hell, you berate yourself for it. Don’t you see? It’s us or them. They’ve made it that way!” SHUT UP! “I will not shut up, little Alayne. Poor little Alayne; she wants to bring glory and honor to herself and her people but doesn’t want to have to break the eggs that go into making that omelet. Now, stop your sniveling and go about the rest of your task. You need to finish your task. Certainly killing an infernal won’t send you into a bout of existential angst. Consider it penance, if that makes you feel better, you little fool.” Wiping her face and forcing herself to stop shaking, Alayne rose and looked out across the desert of Desolace. In the distance, near the borders of the Coven she had just left, she could see the infernals patrolling the border. The cult must be using them as scouts and guards, she thought bitterly to herself. Only those who served demons would be foolish enough to use them in such a manner. They were, by nature, completely unreliable and unlikely to judge anything humanoid-sized as a threat. No wonder she’d been able to penetrate so deeply into the cult’s home grounds with little trouble. She wouldn’t be able to brag about it to Callie now, she thought, feeling some of the sense of accomplishment slip away. Moving quickly, she came within casting range of one of the huge demons. Channeling the shadow energies, she cast a bolt of shade at the creature, striking it directly on its rocky back. The infernal turned and ran towards her with a horrific roar of rage, its green fire spurting out like an eruption of anger. Using all of the curses she knew, Alayne managed to drain the demon’s energy until, finally, she could wrest its vile soul from its filthy, unnatural frame and trap it in a crystal dedicated to such purposes. With a sigh, she kicked the rubble that had been an infernal. Her internal war raged on as she went to find Jez’ral. ~*~*~*~ “What happened to you?” Jez’ral asked in shock as Alayne walked up the path towards him. “You look like something a cat would drag home.” “The infernal didn’t want to part with its soul for the asking,” she sneered. “So I had to convince it the hard way. Let’s get moving. The Wetlands is not exactly next door to this place. I intend to be back in Ratchet before sun-up.” “You have the Tome?” “No. The cultists of the Burning Blade gave me some interesting literature about serving the Legion instead. Of course I have the Tome!” she shouted angrily. “Alayne, don’t speak to me like that,” Jez’ral said softly, his voice like cold steel. “Whatever happened to you out there is not my fault. I will not be used as your punching bag. No matter how far you have advanced, I have gone further up the path, my dear.” The woman took a deep breath, exhaled loudly, and turned to face Jez’ral. “I apologize,” she said calmly. “I will not let it happen again.” “See that you do not. Now, let me see the Tome.” Alayne pulled the book from her belt pouch and handed it to Jez’ral. His anger melted as he flipped through the pages. The knowledge that many warlocks had feared lost was regained. Jez’ral smiled, his pride in his student replacing his present worry and irritation with her. It was almost a shame that he would have to see her hand it over to Strahad. Closing the Tome, he slipped it into his satchel and began walking back towards ShadowpreyVillage. Alayne followed after him, keeping a firm leash on her temper. 92


Once back in the village, they quickly mounted their wyverns and began the flight back north, to Orgrimmar. Alayne struggled to keep her emotions in check throughout the long flight, fatigue battling with fear fighting with anger which in turn sided against horror and a desperate hysteria that left her wanting to scream and weep until the very night closed in around her. By the time the wyverns landed at the roost in Orgrimmar, Alayne felt shaky and drained from the wearing battle raging within her. Jez’ral glanced over at her as she concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other. “We can stop and let you rest for a while, Alayne,” he suggested. “Nothing says that the trials must be completed by sunrise. You just have to complete them if you want to advance further in the Art.” Gratitude towards her teacher surged through Alayne but she refused to give in to her exhaustion. “Thank you,” she said politely, but distantly, “but I will be fine. Come on, we have a zeppelin to catch.” Shaking his head, Jez’ral followed after Alayne. When she came to a sudden halt at the base of the zeppelin tower, he repeated his offer and was, once again, politely refused. With a determined sigh, Alayne led the way up the tower and on to the waiting zeppelin. Once aboard, she descended into the belly of the flying contraption and, in a small concession to her weariness, sat down and leaned her head against the wall. Jez’ral sat across from her, pulling the Tome of the Cabal out of his satchel and skimming through some of the sections that interested him most. He didn’t notice Alayne’s clenched-jaw, white-knuckled terror during the flight across the sea to Lordaeron. He closed the book with a sigh of regret when the zeppelin shuddered to a halt and the goblins announced their arrival near Undercity. Looking up, he was startled to see Alayne gone already. Hastening down the tower, he found her leaning against the doorframe of the decrepit house, gasping for breath. She drew herself up when she saw him approaching her and, forcing her breathing back to normal, even breaths, she walked so quickly on to Undercity that Jez’ral nearly had to jog to keep up with her. Descending into the city of the Forsaken, they explained their business to the keeper of the giant bats and were loaned a pair of the flying beasts to speed them on their way. As they were mounting, Alayne muttered something undecipherable under her breath. When her teacher asked her to repeat it, she merely sighed, pursed her lips, and shook her head. The pair flew off, landing on the road running through the Wetlands just as the sky was darkening into the deepness preceding the dawn. “Are you sure you don’t need any rest?” Jez’ral asked once more as they made their way through the swampy marshes towards the mountains where the Dragonmaw had established a foothold. Alayne shot him an irritated look but held her tongue. With the tone of one who is about to lose her patience completely, Alayne said, “Stay here. I’ll be back soon,” and then stalked off into the hills. ~*~*~*~ Ahead of her, standing guard on a rock, was an orc. Decked out in the regalia of a Dragonmaw warrior, he stood sentinel over the entrance into the Dragonmaw lair. He had seen the elven woman coming for several minutes now. Leisurely, he drew his bow, intending to make short work of the trespasser. The sight of him, arrow knocked, regarding her as worthlessly as her previous attacker had, stoked Alayne’s fury.With a scream of rage, she let loose a bolt of flame that engulfed the orc, lighting him up like a torch. She let loose a primal scream of rage and anguish as tears streaked down her face. Her wild shouts drew the attention of nearby orcs who rushed towards her, only to join their incinerated comrade as Alayne let loose the rage that had been building inside of her since Stromgarde. Fear, anguish, self-hatred were the fuel that she used to send fire upon the hapless orc attackers. Loathing, pain, and confusion added power to her curses. Part of her 93


thrilled in the anguished screams and pitiful moans she wrenched from the orcs. Another part of her stood in mute horror at the scene unfolding before her eyes.Once her fury was spent, the mountain pass was filled with the guttural cries and moans of dying orcs. Their brethren, opting for the better part of valor, retreated into the deepness of the mountains, wondering if the elven woman’s rampage was the opening move of a campaign to drive them out of their stronghold. The sky began to pearl with the beginnings of a bright dawn when Alayne finally came back to herself. Looking around her at the burnt grass and smoldering rocks of the mountain pass, she sighed tiredly. The internal battle was over, for the moment, but she could sense another storm brewing inside of her whenever she thought of returning to Zerith, Callie, and Ger’alin after this night. Thoughts of the Blood Knight whirled in her mind, mixing with the face of the murdered elf. Lowering her head in defeat and banishing all thoughts, she began rummaging through the smoking remains of the orcs she had slaughtered, looking for the rods Strahad had ordered her to bring to him. “What is happening to me?” she whispered softly as she wiped her soot-covered hands on her dusty robes. Jez’ral wisely said nothing when she returned to him carrying the rods in a dirty hand. He wondered if Strahad would recognize the elf maid who had thrown her defiance at him just hours ago. In silence, the two mounted and prepared to return to Ratchet. As they flew, Jez’ral would peer over his shoulder from time to time, wondering just what it was that seemed to be consuming his student from within. ~*~*~*~ “She’s amazing,” Strahad said, his voice low but filled with awe. “She is,” Jez’ral agreed readily, easily masking his concern with pleasure at Alayne’s accomplishments. “During my trial, I never thought of cutting off the creature’s tentacles.” “Nor did I,” Strahad chuckled as he recalled the sight of the young elf woman fighting off the felhound. “Once it plants those barbed spikes in you, all you can think of is the pain. Ah, Menara, my dear, how is she?” “She’ll be down shortly,” the human woman said briskly as she descended the twisting stairs leading up the tower. “I hope the goblins have plenty of wintersbite and grave moss. I’ve used up the last of our stock blending a poultice for her. She is something else, isn’t she? Raw talent, a natural at weaving, and full of spunk besides.” Above them, Alayne stood in a room, alone. The bruises marring her back, shoulders, and arms from her trials were darkening into an ugly purple-black. She could feel the fresh cuts along her ribs whenever she breathed. The mix that Menara had made blocked the worst of the pain but Alayne still winced whenever she moved. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to ignore the pain and the fatigue that wanted to drag her down into unconsciousness and slipped on the robes Menara had made for her, marking her advance in the ranks of the warlocks. Letting the skirts settle around her legs, Alayne limped down the stairs, forcing herself to try to walk normally; to mask her true condition. “You look much better,” Strahad said warmly as her foot left the last stair. “If you continue to progress so quickly and so well, your future will be set.” “Thank you,” Alayne said, straining to inflect some tone of gratitude and emotion into her leaden voice. “I will try hard,” she finished. Bowing politely, and biting her lower lip to keep from crying out, she managed to mask her soreness with a stately, if slow, glide. So tired was she that not even the humans’ amused chuckles could raise her ire. Jez’ral caught up with her after making his farewells to his comrades and beamed down at her. “You have really impressed Strahad, Alayne. That is all to the good for you. He 94


is a very powerful man. Keep in touch with him; he can open doors to knowledge and power you’ve never dreamed of.” “I will,” she replied, her voice drained but aware that some acknowledgement was expected. “You should sleep,” her teacher continued. “As soon as we return to Silvermoon, I’ll have your room prepared. You’ll probably want to take a long soak as well. I’ll also have some of our own look at your injuries. Menara is good; but she’s still human.” “I’m not going back to Silvermoon,” Alayne said haltingly, bracing for the torrent. After a moment of awkward silence, she glanced over at Jez’ral. He was staring at her, a blank look on his face. His silence asked the question to which she answered, “at least, not right away.” “Going on to Tarren Mill, then? Back to your friends, I suppose.” “No, but would you deliver a message to them for me?” “That depends, Alayne, entirely on what message I am to give them and whether or not you can convince me that it’s worth my while to be your errand-boy.” “Just tell them that I passed my tests and that I decided to give Zerith a bit more of a vacation from my mothering. I’m going to Azshara. I’ve been wanting to see some of the historical landmarks our people built ages ago. Who knows but what secrets lurk in them, waiting to be uncovered again?” Alayne smiled inwardly as she saw her teacher visibly relax. “Need a bit of a vacation from constantly battling for the glory of the sin’dorei, do we?” he joked. “Something like that,” she laughed weakly. “Don’t worry about me, Jez’ral. I’m planning to take a nap as soon as I find a likely campsite late this afternoon.” “Very well. I will take your message to your friends in Tarren Mill. When should I tell them you will be returning?” “Soon. I just need a few days…” she trailed off, fearful that she wouldn’t be able to continue her deception if she spoke more. Jez’ral appeared to attribute her faltering as fatigue. “Keep those wounds clean,” he advised, sounding almost paternal, “and get some rest. You’ve more than earned it.” With a smile, he turned and left, heading towards the roost to fetch his wyvern back to Orgrimmar. Alayne stood where she was, watching him go. When he was just a speck in the sky, she turned, called forth the felsteed she had enslaved after passing her trials, and, chewing the inside of her mouth raw to keep from crying out, headed north into the forests of Ashenvale. ~*~*~*~ “Feeling better, I take it,” Ger’alin groused when he saw Zerith strolling out of the inn, a large leather sack slung over his shoulder. “Yes, I am,” the priest said, his lips quirking in a smile. “She should be back by now,” the fighter muttered angrily. “Four days when we all thought she’d be gone just a few hours.” “What was it you told me, once, Ger’alin?” Zerith said lightly, “Stop worrying about one of the most capable women you’ve ever seen. Jez’ral explained it the afternoon he delivered her message; she is taking some time to visit the ruins of Azshara. She’s been wanting to see them since she was a little girl. Light, Ger’alin, I thought I was supposed to be the overprotective one.” “I guess you’re right,” Ger’alin said irritably. “I probably shouldn’t worry about her. Light, I’ve seen what she’s capable of doing when you get her temper flaring. She can handle anything Kalimdor throws at her,” he said in the tone of one trying to convince himself.

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Zerith stared at him for a moment and then, looking around to make sure no one was close by, he asked in an undertone, “What, pray tell, is she capable of?” “She didn’t tell you?” Ger’alin said flatly. “No. Neither would Callie. Every time I’ve asked someone about what happened after I was shot, I get a dose of the fish-eye and a quick change of topic.” “Well, I suppose you’ve a right to know,” Ger’alin sighed heavily. “But not here. Come on down to my camp by the river.” Glancing around, Zerith asked, “Will this take long? I’m supposed to meet Dar’ja near the turn to Durnholde. She really wants to learn more about herb-lore, so I figured I’d take her to the Hinterlands and show her where I really started learning.” “Yeah, sure, flowers,” Ger’alin muttered as he led Zerith back to his campsite. “Are you sure she’s not planning to learn how to poison you or something?” “Oh, grow up, Ger’alin,” Zerith said in exasperation. “She’s not that bad. Sure, we had a rocky start but we’ve patched it up. It’s not like there’s a surplus of sin’dorei after the last war. We do need to stick together.” Ger’alin muttered something beneath his breath that Zerith decided it would be best to pretend he hadn’t heard. The two men reached the fighter’s camp site and Ger’alin glanced around, double checking that there was no one within hearing range. “So, tell me the big secret,” Zerith teased. “What did she do? Blow up a house?” “No,” Ger’alin said, his tone cold and completely serious, “what she did do was damn near start a genocide when she thought you’d been killed. For a few minutes there, Alayne had a really good ‘exterminate the humans’ effort going on there. It took being knocked to the ground, pinned so she couldn’t cast, and then slapped harder than I’ve ever hit anyone bare-handed to snap her out of her blood-rage.” Zerith paled, his eyes widening in shock. “Let me tell you something else. Personally, I think, if you had been killed, there wouldn’t be a single human left alive on this entire continent.” “You’re lying,” Zerith said once he could finally speak. “No, I’m not and you know it and that’s what’s made you damn near pass out,” Ger’alin said flatly. “Well, if you’re going to faint, sit down at least. It’s a shorter distance to fall. And this,” he continued, gesturing to Zerith, “is probably why she didn’t tell you herself and no one else would. By the light of the sun, I’ve never seen anything like it before. Alayne was just as horrified as you are now once she came back to her senses.” “Do you think the fel magic could be corrupting her?” “It could,” the Blood Knight sighed, “but, I think it’s something more than that. There’s been something gnawing at her for as long as I’ve known her – which, granted, isn’t as long as you have. But, I do remember seeing her around Silvermoon before you two started recruiting. Bah, I can’t really explain it. I just think that there’s more at work here than just fel corruption.” “Should we consider sending her back to Silvermoon?” “As if she would go,” Ger’alin snorted. “And, no. That would be a very bad move. She’s capable. She’s powerful. And, if she hadn’t completely lost control so that I feared she might actually turn on us, her battle-rage could be usefully directed. But, what I saw is too much of a double-edged sword. And, her reaction to it after the face…she needs watching, Zerith.” “Maybe if we talked to some of the veteran soldiers…” the priest suggested. “I’ve had a few words about it with Tau’re,” Ger’alin nodded. “He’s an old campaigner and comes from a long line of warriors. He said he’d only heard of such a thing when someone lost their mind to grief or anger. I’ve thought back over what little I know of demonic blood-lust but Alayne has not drunk demon blood so…”

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“Well,” the priest sighed, exhaling heavily and tapping his jaw pensively, “I’ll try to talk to her. See if I can draw her out and find out what’s bothering her. Maybe she’s frightened and doesn’t want to admit it. Maybe she had something terrible happen in her past and she can’t get over it on her own. She did live among humans and she mentioned working in a tavern.” Ger’alin winced and covered his eyes with a hand. Zerith snorted. “Yes, she’s not had the easiest life.” “Talk to her if you can,” Ger’alin groaned. “If that doesn’t work, I’ll try a trick that I’ve seen work in the barracks. Oh, get your mind out of the gutter, priest. I may enjoy looking but I’m not a man to press my attentions uninvited. Ask Dar’ja if you doubt that.” “Thank you for telling me this,” Zerith said. “I really should go meet Dar’ja now. And, we’ll think of something. After all, she is my sister now. I won’t let her go without a fight.” ~*~*~*~ “He’s going to think of something,” Ger’alin said to Callie as the pair settled in to another day of fishing. “However, you do owe me five gold. He didn’t soil his robes.” “I should never bet against you,” Callie sighed. “Still, it is better that he knows. I certainly couldn’t think of anything and Alayne and I did not get off to the best start. Sure, we get along now but I doubt she’d tell me the deepest, darkest fears of her heart.” “Zerith stands the best chance of getting it out of her,” Ger’alin admitted somewhat glumly. “If only…” “If only what?” “If only I had a good stiff drink. The fish just are not biting today.” “Well, I owe you five gold so how about we head over to Undercity and hit the taverns? Maybe I can get what you were really thinking out of you if I ply you with liquor and seduce you,” the rogue teased, batting her eyes and pursing her lips. “I accept your payment in lieu of cold, hard currency,” Ger’alin laughed, “but I will have you know that I am hardly a worthwhile conquest.” The two sat fishing in companionable silence for a while. “They really aren’t biting today, are they?” Callie muttered finally. “Indeed, they are not. I think we’ve just about fished this spot out.” “Well, let’s go pay off my debt. Even if you have just broken my heart into a million pieces,” she teased, “I still want to see you get drunk so I challenge you to a duel I’ll have a shot at winning.” “My lady, you have read my mind.” “It’s pretty easy to read. Eating, drinking, and fighting seem to cover most of your interests.” “Ach!” Ger’alin cried out in mock offense, “you wound me, my good undead. I also have been accused of occasionally thinking about women.” “Oh ho, is that why Dar’ja hates you?” Callie laughed. “Most likely,” he chuckled. “Are you finally going to tell me that story? I’ve been trying to figure out why she can’t stand to be around you for days now. If I hadn’t already died, I’d say that the suspense was killing me.” “There’s really not much to tell. I had just arrived in Silvermoon and, after hearing that the best place for my weapons’ skills was with the Blood Knights since the Army was no longer recruiting, I presented myself for training with that worthy organization. Dar’ja was nearby, hovering around the Lady Liadrin like some mindless sycophant. I made what I felt were proper respects to a knight and told her my background and why I was there. Dar’ja 97


kept rolling her eyes at me so I offered to give a demonstration of my hard-earned combat skills by dueling her. To be honest, she almost had me beaten there using her divine skills. But still, praying isn’t much use when a fellow my size decides to clamp his hand over a woman her size’s mouth and put her in a sleeper hold until she passes out. Dar’ja’s considered me a muscle-brained oaf with all the sophistication of pond scum ever since.” Callie stared at him for a long moment. Then, her lips began to twitch. After a few seconds, the dam burst and she clutched her sides, her full-throated laughter ringing down the mountain. Hiccoughing and wiping tears from her eyes, she sputtered down after several more minutes, but would still break into fits of giggles whenever she called to mind the image of Ger’alin wrestling with the haughty Dar’ja. “So, she’s not very good at hand-tohand combat?” the Forsaken gasped out. “Light of heaven, no,” Ger’alin replied. “I think Zerith could probably put her on her back with no trouble there.” Callie stared at him incredulously for several seconds and then was, once again, rolling on the ground, her whooping cackles echoing and re-echoing across the area. Ger’alin stared at her in confusion for a moment before he understood. Throwing back his head, he joined her in laughing until tears streaked down his face. “Get your mind out of the gutter,” he managed to croak out several minutes later. “But it’s such an amusing gutter!” ~*~*~*~ “You really know a lot about plants,” Dar’ja muttered blankly as Zerith finished explaining the difference between two flowers that, to her, looked identical. “I’ve always figured healing was mostly just the will of Light.” “It is, in the end,” the priest said happily. “After all, if the Light has decided to call you on to the next stage of existence, then all of the prayers and all of the potions on this world will avail you nothing. Sometimes, though, calling on the Light for healing is like amputating an arm to get a splinter out of your finger. There are just easier, less costly ways to go about it. Now, if you take this one,” he said, picking up a yellow flower with six petals. “Am I boring you?” he asked, noting the lack of enthusiasm on Dar’ja’s part. “It’s not you,” she said gently. “I’m just not as interested in this as I thought. Come on, let’s head back to Tarren Mill. Your sister will have my hide for a rug if I let you wear yourself out.” Zerith nodded, stuffed his collection into his gathering sack, and, dusting off his knees, took his place next to Dar’ja as they set out back to Tarren Mill. “I’m sorry if I wasted your whole afternoon,” he said. “It’s not your fault, Zerith,” she laughed. “I never dreamed there was so much variety in the grasses of the Hinterlands. It’s just not my cup of tea.” “Well, what is your cup of tea?” he asked. “I’d like to make up for dragging you along.” “Oh no,” she smiled. “We don’t know each other that well, yet. Ger’alin would never let me forget it if he found out just what it is I do for fun.” “Then I won’t tell him,” Zerith said. “I’ll take any vow you require.” Dar’ja stared at him in amused shock. Rolling her eyes, she laughed. “I guess that will do. Remember; you’ve dragged it out of me.” Stepping close to him, she stood on her toes and whispered in his ear. “No!” he exclaimed, astonished. “Yes. My mother and grandmother were quite good at it.” “I didn’t think any women did that anymore.” 98


“Oh, not many do. I’m one of the few who can. Not only can I do that, but I you should see some of my quilts.” “Needlepoint?” he said, still in shock. “I could never get the hang of that.” “It’s quite relaxing,” she said defensively. “Trust me, after a hard day of training, nothing feels better than to curl up next to a nice fire and work on a beautiful wall-hanging.” “I suppose,” he drawled. “I’d have to try it, though.” “That could be arranged.” Zerith stared at her for a second before laughing. “I could just see that now.” “Ger’alin would never let you forget it.” “No, he wouldn’t,” Zerith agreed pleasantly. “And I do believe that’s the first time I’ve heard you say his name without practically spitting. What is your history with him?” “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not get into that right now,” Dar’ja said, her cheeks flushing. “He and I did not get off to a good start at all and I don’t think we ever will patch things up as you and I have. He’s an irritating man who lacks any sort of intellect beyond that required to eat and sleep. Even the Lady Liadrin sees that.” “He’s not all bad,” Zerith defended his friend. “I didn’t say he was,” Dar’ja explained, “I just don’t care for him myself.” “Why? What did he do so wrong that you dislike him so much?” “You really want to know?” “Yes, Dar’ja, I really want to know.” “When he first arrived in Silvermoon, he came to the Lady Liadrin to begin his training in the ways of the Blood Knights. We number mostly former priests, paladins, and warriors. Ger’alin showed up, full of himself since he’d been a guard in Theramore among humans. As if that counts for anything,” Dar’ja spat. “He kept going on and on about his combat experience; some of the skirmishes he’d fought in. It was so boring to have to stand there and listen to him recite his whole history as proud as a child who can recite his letters. When Lady Liadrin asked him if he had any experience with magic or wielding the powers of the Light, he, of course, said he didn’t. She asked him just what it was he wanted from studying with the Blood Knights instead of the Farstriders or the army. I couldn’t help but giggle when he couldn’t answer. That made him angry so he challenged me right then and there. I was putting him in his place; his muscles availed him nothing against the power of the Light. Then, the next thing I know, he’s standing over me. I’m on the ground, blinking, with him grinning down at me. He did not fight fair.” Zerith said nothing, careful to keep his face blank. His new standing with Dar’ja was delicate. The slightest wrong move and she’d freeze up again. He thought carefully over his next words. “It sounds like,” he began finally, “you can’t forgive him for embarrassing you.” Dar’ja whirled on him, her eyes flashing with anger. Zerith ignored it. “Be honest with yourself,” he said softly. “That’s one of the gifts of the Light: the ability to learn and grow from bad experiences instead of being embittered by them. Ger’alin’s never mentioned this to me. He’s always just said you and he got off to a bad start and that you don’t get along. If he were really the oaf you think he is, he’d have been bragging about how he beat you without having to use magic at all.” The elf woman glared at him, but her expression was softening. Finally, after several minutes of silent introspection, she sighed, gave the ghost of a shrug, and smiled up at Zerith. “I see now why so many people follow you,” she said gently. Now it was Zerith’s turn to blush. “Don’t start on that. I don’t know why they follow me. I’m not wise or extremely brave or anything like that. I’m just me.” “Of course you are,” she laughed delightedly, stepping up and throwing her arms around him. Zerith stood awkwardly for a moment before he returned the embrace, his heart

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fluttering as a not-unfamiliar yet new emotion ran through him in waves. After several moments, the two disentangled themselves and, hand-in-hand, continued back to Tarren Mill. ~*~*~*~ “I’m not doing anyone any good out here,” Alayne muttered to herself irritably as she stood, idly tossing stones into the GreatSea. Just a few steps north would put her in Darkshore, the ancient forests her distant ancestors had inhabited. To her south, she could see the outlines of the great temples and buildings that were cast down by the Sundering. She’d spent hours climbing through those ruins, searching for some secret wisdom to guide her on the path she should take; some lingering spirit to comfort her and help her stop the war she felt raging within her heart whenever she did not force herself to some occupation. “And don’t you dare start,” she said warningly to herself. “I’m in no mood for it now.” Walking along the shoreline, she breathed in the salty tang of the sea. Her mind drifted back to her days in Menethil when she would swim in the warm salt water near the harbor while her mother watched from the shore. As a child, she had longed to swim out into the heart of the vast ocean, into the Maelstrom itself, and, holding her breath, make her way down to where the ruins of the ancient elven civilization must lay. In her childish dreams, those ruins had been peopled with her ancestors, wise, strong, powerful. She’d dreamed of adventuring under the sea with them. “But, all dreams must end when we wake,” she muttered. “And, we must put away childhood as we grow. I should return to the others. I’m not doing anyone any good out here.” Steeling herself, she began the incantation to call forth her mount. As had happened every time in the past four days when she’d had this conversation, her incantation fizzled as the face of the man she’d murdered floated before her eyes. Closing her eyes, trying to shut him out of her mind, she began again. This time, the scene of the carnage she’d wrought in Stromgarde hung before her. Squeezing her eyes so tightly shut that she could feel the muscles at the base of her skull bunching with the strain, she tried yet again. Visions of Zerith, of Callie, of Ger’alin, of so many she knew and had come to care for falling before her blind wrath assaulted her, staggering her. She collapsed to the ground, her hands slamming the gritty sand and keeping her from pitching onto her face. What good is a warlock who can’t cast a simple spell? “You shut up,” she snarled between clenched teeth, her eyes still tightly shut. Mocking laughter, the same laughter that had plagued her since just after her trials, flayed her, ringing in her ears like the roar of the ocean. She could feel the hot, bitter tears of anguish and defeat trickle down her nose; the same tears she had shed each time she tried to leave her self-imposed exile. “I did this to myself and now I’m undoing it!” she screamed. Poor little Alayne. She cannot wield the arcane. By the shores of the sea, she cries bitterly and the waves just laugh at her pain. “I hate you,” she growled. “I hate you and I want to be free of you.” You could sooner cut out your own heart. “LET! ME! LEAVE!” she roared. Suddenly, the words of the summoning spell spilled from her tongue, rolling off fluently. Jerking her head up and letting her eyes open, she smiled happily when she saw her felsteed pawing the ground just a few feet away. Climbing aboard its back, she clucked to it, signaling a gallop, and set off for Orgrimmar and the zeppelin back to Lordaeron. “I should learn to use a sword,” she muttered as she passed wide of Astranaar. “Maybe Ger’alin would teach me how. Useful for if I can’t cast a spell.”

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He wouldn’t mind teaching you that. He probably wouldn’t mind teaching you other things while he’s at it. The murdered man’s mocking face hung in her vision. “You shut up,” she whispered harshly. “I’ll find a way to make you shut up. I will.” ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin and Callie headed up the road towards Undercity, regaling each other with tales that forced them to stop, wheezing from laughter, quite often. Hearing the horn sounding to alert those nearby that a zeppelin had arrived, Callie turned, grabbing Ger’alin by the shoulder, and pointed towards the tower. “Did I tell you about the time we had to go to Orgrimmar?” she asked, her voice hoarse from laughing. “You didn’t. Zerith did. I shouldn’t laugh,” he snickered, “we all have our fears. But I would have given anything to have actually seen you guys dragging her onto that machine!” “Maybe we should make a trip ourselves. In memory of that day.” “Madame, my evening is yours,” Ger’alin said courteously, making a bow that would fit in at the Court of the Sun. “Why, sir, you are too kind,” Callie said in a falsetto voice, returning his gesture with one of her own. The two friends laughed at themselves and hurried up to the zeppelin tower. Upon reaching the top, they stopped when they overheard goblin voices arguing with a recalcitrant passenger. From within the ship, a familiar figure emerged, shaking like a leaf in high winds. “Alayne!” Callie cheered, running up to the elven woman and embracing her. “For the love of all that is holy get me off this blasted contraption and down this misbegotten tower!” Alayne forced between gritted teeth. “Good to see you too!” Callie laughed, taking her friend’s hand. “Close your eyes. I’ll lead you down. Ger’alin will make sure you don’t fall.” “I don’t care just getmedownfromhere!” The three made their way slowly down the tower. Callie guided Alayne’s steps. Ger’alin walked behind her, his hands out by her sides to catch her should she miss a step. Once they were finally down on the ground, Alayne opened her eyes and sighed. Then, smiling at them, she said, “I am glad to see you both.” “You have been missed,” Ger’alin laughed. “How’s Zerith?” “Oh, he’s fine,” Ger’alin replied. “Dar’ja’s been taking really good care of him,” Callie added. “Dar’ja?” “You’ve missed out on some things. Come, join us and we’ll get you up to speed,” Callie explained. “Obviously,” Alayne laughed. “So, what are you two doing so far from Tarren Mill?” Callie and Ger’alin looked at each other guiltily. “Um,” Ger’alin began, not sure of what to say or how Alayne would take the news. “I lost a bet with him,” Callie said glibly. “And, to honor my wager, I’m buying him drinks at the tavern of his choice in Undercity.” “Add buying Alayne here some wine to that list,” Ger’alin suggested. “Wine?” Alayne laughed. “I could use something a little stronger than fermented grape juice after that flight. Make it a whiskey and I’ll take you up on it.” Ger’alin did a double-take but kept his thoughts to himself. “Then whiskey it will be,” Callie cackled. 101


“Now, tell me about Zerith and Dar’ja. Is she nice?” ~*~*~*~ “So, tell us about Azshara,” Callie asked after she’d finished getting Alayne up to speed on what she’d missed in the past week. “Did the naga bother you much?” “Oh, that,” Alayne muttered as she stared into her empty mug. Blinking, she tried to remember just when it had gotten empty. Setting it firmly to the side, she tried to come up with a plausible tale. Deciding on something approaching the truth, she said, “I didn’t make it to Azshara. Too many...oh, thank you,” she smiled to the attendant who brought her a fresh mug. “Too many night elves and all guarding the road. I wound up on the other coast of Ashenvale. Spent some time in the ruins there. Got bored. Came back. Are you going to finish that?” she asked Ger’alin, pointing to his mug of ale. “Yes,” he said, taking a sip and staring at Alayne quizzically. She’d managed to polish off a full glass of whiskey and five mugs of mead, a feat he hadn’t believed possible for someone her size to accomplish without getting drunk. Very drunk. “Tell us about your tests,” he suggested as he finished the last of his ale. Winking at Callie, he smiled, “That was good. I’ll have another.” “I’m going to have to beg in the streets if you two lushes keep this up much longer,” the Forsaken groused. “Can all sin’dorei drink like this? Or are you two just alcoholics in training?” “I don’t want to talk about it,” Alayne said, staring off into space blankly. “You can’t make me. Not unless I get much, much, much drunker than I am right now,” she amended. “Thank you!” she said brightly as the same undead gave her a fresh mug. “I can’t afford all this,” Callie muttered to him. He waved her off, whispering, “For you three, it’s all on the house. For what you did in Silverpine.” Callie brightened at this news and ordered a round of Deadhead, the local specialty, for her and Ger’alin. Alayne, she thought, needed less – not more – alcohol and the Deadhead was about the equivalent of half of what the warlock had already consumed. The rogue eyed Ger’alin speculatively, wondering about the effect it would have on him and knowing that it would make her just the slightest bit tipsy. The Forsaken took a good bit more to get roaring drunk than the living. “I think you’ve had enough,” Ger’alin started to say, reaching over to take Alayne’s mug away from her. She pulled away, irritation twisting her face, and cradled the mug against her chest. “I haven’t had nearly enough,” she said carefully, in the tone of one who is making an effort not to slur her words. “You’re just afraid I’ll out-drink you.” “Is that a challenge?” he laughed, assured he could win this one easily. “Yes,” she said, nodding her head. “I’ve had…how many have I had, Callie?” “Seven,” the Forsaken woman replied. “I’ve had seven mugs,” Alayne said proudly. “You’ve barely finished off…” “Three,” Callie supplied the number again. “Three, like she said,” Alayne grinned. “You finish off four more and then we’ll go one-on-one. Last elf still conscious wins.” “What will I win?” Ger’alin smiled. “Oh,” Alayne said in mock exasperation, “you think you’re so clever. I’ll win,” she stared off into space again, lost in thought before finally turning to Callie, “what should I win?” “Beats me,” the undead laughed. This could prove amusing. “How about this?” Ger’alin suggested. “We’ll play for future forfeits. The loser will, at some point in the future, have to perform whatever task the winner decides. Within 102


reason,” he amended, seeing the look on Alayne’s face. “Callie will decide what’s ‘within reason.’” “I accept.” “Ah, here, drink this one,” Callie said as the attendant returned with two mugs of Deadhead. “One mug of this has about as much alcohol content as three mugs of ale. It should give you a nice buzz and get you caught up with her.” Ger’alin picked up the mug and quaffed it down like a seasoned veteran. Slamming the mug back on the table, he grinned at Callie, feeling the effects of the drink already. “Let’s get started!” he said, his voice loud to his own ears. Alayne grinned at him as she raised her eighth mug to her lips. He could feel the same kind of drunken grin stretching across his own face as he lifted his mug in salute to her and then turned the bottom up. Callie rolled her eyes. She had a feeling that it was going to be a long, long night. ~*~*~*~ “Sho,” Ger’alin slurred, trying to remember what he’d done with his mug, “you’re sherious? An infurn-hul?” “Yesh,” Alayne slurred, shoving his mug at him and groping for her own. “It’sh big an’ green an’ whoosh!” she flung her hands into the air, “hash flames ev’r’where. Very not nice.” “An’ a horshe, too?” “Mm-hmm,” she said. “How many’sh that, Callie?” “Way more than either of you needs.” Alayne and Ger’alin roared with drunken laughter. “You’re such a shillypershon!” Ger’alin said, his eyes glassy but filled with amusement. “I really think we should head back to Tarren Mill. Zerith has got to be wondering if we fell down a hole or something.” “Bah,” Ger’alin muttered dismissively. “Sherith’sprobabablyshuckin’ the skin offaol’ Dar’sha’s face.” “I’ve gottasheethishDar’sha,” Alayne said as she tried to stand up. Ger’alin laughed as he caught her just before she tripped over her long robes. “C’mere, you,” he said, plunking Alayne on the bench right beside him. “I haf a mug wit your name on it.Lasht elfsh shtanding you shaid.” The bartender brought another round of mugs for the two sin’dorei. He then leaned over and whispered to Callie that closing time was fast approaching and that this was the last round. “Okay you two,” the Forsaken said patiently. “Finish those drinks and then let’s get going. The bar staff wants to close up. You’ve both proven whatever point it was you were trying to make.” The two elves grinned up at her, their eyes glassy and faces flushed from hard drinking. Callie didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone get quite so drunk as these two had tonight. “At least they’re happy drunks,” she said to herself, counting her blessings. They polished off their drinks obediently, then rose on unsteady feet. Sighing, Callie pushed herself between them and, letting them lean on her for support, she led their faltering steps up out of the tavern. “That’s it,” she coaxed. “Just one foot in front of the other.” “Shomeonekeepsh tilting the floor,” Alayne muttered. Then, stopping so quickly that Callie almost lost her balance and fell, Alayne stared off into space angrily, saying, “No, ish not MY fault. Shut up!”

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“Alayne, no one’s blaming you for anything,” Callie said soothingly. “Just come along. It’s going to be a long trip back to Tarren Mill.” “She’s alwayshshaying stuff,” Alayne said, waving her free arm wildly. “Won’t shut up.” “I have no clue what you’re talking about but okay,” Callie temporized. Looking up, she saw a wagon on the road to Silverpine. “Excuse me!” she called out to the driver. Ignoring Alayne’s darkening mutterings and Ger’alin’s attempts to start telling some wild story, Callie managed to convince the driver to drop them off at the fork in the road to Tarren Mill. Getting both of them into the wagon was a nearly insurmountable task made more difficult by Alayne’s sudden decision to become extremely argumentative. Once the two elves were secured, Callie sighed deeply and climbed up onto the board next to the driver. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. “Had a bit too much to drink?” he laughed as he cracked the whip over the horses’ heads. “Alayne, I wanna tell you a shtory,” Callie overheard Ger’alin muttering. Straining her ears, she tried to make out what he was saying but couldn’t over Alayne’s giggling. With a sigh, she thought that at least whatever it was seemed to have gotten Alayne back into a better mood. ~*~*~*~ “What under the Light?” Zerith muttered, hearing loud voices outside. “It’s not even morning yet,” he said angrily as he tossed aside the covers and hurried to the window, wondering what was coming down on them. “I hope Ger’alin and Callie are awake too.” Listening intently, he thought he heard singing. Off-key and in Thalassian at that. He could make out a man’s deep baritone and a woman’s chiming alto singing the ancient battle chant of Quel’Thalas. The singing grew louder and Zerith grew more annoyed. To be awakened by a couple of drunks at this hour! He started to slam the window shut and return to his sleep when he saw the figures stumbling into view. “Oh no,” he breathed, not liking what he saw at all. “Not both of them!” Grabbing a dressing robe, he slipped on his shoes and hurried out into the darkened street. Angry mutters came from all of the other rooms in the inn, as well as from the windows of occupied houses. “Guesshwho’sh back!” Ger’alin exclaimed happily when he saw Zerith hurrying up to them. “Alayne!” Zerith’s eyes nearly fell out of his head in shock when he saw his sister staggering drunkenly to find her footing. “HiyaSherith!” she said happily, and loudly enough to be heard in Stranglethorn Vale. “Think you could help me get these two in bed?” Callie whispered desperately. “I don’t think I can handle both of them together much longer.” “You take Alayne; I’ll get Ger’alin,” Zerith muttered darkly. “He can take the floor of my room. Ger’alin, stop that racket!” he whispered harshly. “Don’t you start now,” Callie warned Alayne as the woman opened her mouth to pick up the song she’d been singing. “Come on, up the stairs. Lift your feet.” With much muttering and difficulty, Zerith and Callie managed to wrestle Alayne and Ger’alin up the stairs of the inn. After another attempted serenade, Callie kept her hand clamped firmly over Alayne’s mouth. The sin’dorei woman seemed to think the whole thing was one enormous joke. Ger’alin wasn’t much better, his single-person dialogue making sense only to Alayne, who was just as intoxicated as he. Zerith propped Ger’alin against the wall just inside Callie’s room and moved to help the Forsaken get Alayne settled in. After a

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few minutes of patient arguing, Alayne finally slept, one leg hanging off the side of the bed to stop the room from spinning. “One down, one to go,” Zerith muttered as he turned back to grab Ger’alin. Before he could reach the man, the fighter tumbled down the floor, snoring drunkenly. Callie bit the inside of her mouth to keep from bursting into laughter at the look of sheer frustrated outrage that flashed across the priest’s face as he glared down at the unconscious fighter. “Bah!” Zerith finally spat in exasperation. “He can sleep here on the floor. He’s too drunk to do anything else and I’m not about to try to lift him! Still, let’s drag him over closer to the bed so he won’t be blocking the door. And I suppose we could be nice and take his boots and sword belt off him. Still, I don’t know where you’re going to sleep,” Zerith muttered while they worked. He tried to sound apologetic but wastoo frustrated by the situation. “Let’s just hope that Alayne doesn’t need to throw up during the night. She’ll step right on him getting to the basin.” “Don’t worry about me,” Callie said, exerting all of her willpower not to laugh at the whole situation. “Just go back to bed. I think the Quel’Thalas choir has retired for the night and, besides, I’ll just to steal his tent. Like you said; they’re both too drunk to do anything other than snore,” she giggled as Alayne began doing just that. Zerith stared at the Forsaken woman in horror. Callie returned his look blandly. Then, her lips began to quiver. Zerith turned, shaking his head and shoulders in silent laughter. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin rolled over on his back, turning his head slightly for the faint thud that had made him stir. He had almost fallen back asleep when another sound roused him further. Slowly opening an eye, he glanced around, trying to figure out where he was and what the sound could be. The side of a bed stood in the grey shadows of the pre-dawn light before him. With a muffled groan, he forced his other eye open and turned his head. He was laying on the rough wooden floorboards of the inn. How, exactly, he had gotten there was still a mystery to him. He was puzzling over it and wondering what had woken him when he heard the sound again. It sounded like faint, muffled weeping. With a grimace of effort, Ger’alin forced himself to sit up, looking around the room for the source of the tears. The sheets of the bed had been pulled off and dragged to the far side. Rolling onto his side and reaching out with his hand, he groped for the person who was tangled up in the covers next to him. Though why Zerith would be weeping…Ger’alin must have been drunker than he thought if he’d done something to upset the priest that much. But why the weeping? Ger’alin wondered to himself. And it doesn’t sound like Zerith at all.He added, his horror growing at the thoughts of what he might have done during the night. Moving over to the quivering lump of sheets and weeping, Ger’alin grabbed for what he hoped was a shoulder and gave it a gentle shake. Anxiety began to gnaw at him when the sobbing increased in frequency and volume to the point where he was forced to admit that not only was this not Zerith, it was definitely a woman and he wasn’t too clear on how, exactly, he’d wound up in her room. “Come on now,” he whispered to the bundle, “calm down. Please quit crying. It can’t be as bad as you fear,” he tried to make light of the strange situation. The woman’s weeping increased, becoming sobs and hiccoughs that made the blankets wrapped around her tremble like a tightly drawn bowstring. Sighing, Ger’alin decided to take the tauren by the horns. “Please stop,” he whispered. “I promise, whatever happened last night, I still respect and honor you and will marry you as soon as you wish. I have a friend who could hear our vows whenever you’d like,” he trailed off. This was certainly not a situation he’d ever thought he’d find himself in and certainly not how he’d hoped to meet his future wife. He reached for the 105


sheets, determined to at least see the face of the woman he would be tied to for the rest of his life. As he tugged at the sheets, a hand reached out from them and shoved him. His jaw dropped in horrified shock recognition set in. “Alayne?” he asked finally, feeling extremely nervous and uncomfortable. “Are you all right?” The blankets around her head shook violently as her weeping took on an edge of hysteria. Gingerly, he scooted closer to her, leaning his back against the side of the bed and reaching to pat her gently, albeit awkwardly. “Calm down, Alayne,” he said softly. “Tell me what’s the matter?” It seemed impossible, but her shuddering increased. Taking a page from the matron of his orphanage, Ger’alin pulled Alayne into his lap and rocked her the way he had been when his parents declared lost. At first, she struggled against him weakly. After a few minutes, her sobs subsided and she slept, an occasional hiccough or shuddering sigh the only breaks in her peaceful slumber. Considering the matter tiredly, Ger’alin decided he was no less dead if he left her where she was as he nodded off himself. ~*~*~*~ “Good morning!” Callie said cheerily as she plunked herself down next to Alayne. The sin’dorei woman was sitting at one of the long wooden tables in the dining area of the inn, her head laying upon her arms on the table. Her drinking partner from the previous night sat in a similar position across from her. Next to each of them sat empty mugs that gave off a faint, unpleasant odor. “Hangover?” the Forsaken continued in her merry tone. “If you offered to cut my head off,” Ger’alin muttered, “I would thank you for your kindness and compassion.” “Sweet merciful Light, what happened last night?” Alayne muttered at the same time. “And why did it seem like such a good idea at the time?” “That, I don’t know,” Callie said in response to Alayne’s second question. “But, last night, you and Ger’alin set a new record at the Skeleton’s Closet for ‘Most Alcohol Consumed In One Evening By Those With Working Metabolisms.’ Neither of you won your bet, by the way.” “There was a bet?” Ger’alin asked, his voice muffled by his arms. “I don’t remember that.” “I don’t remember anything after getting on that blasted zeppelin back in Durotar,” Alayne snapped, her voice similarly muffled. “I vaguely recall a tavern. I’m not even going to ask why I woke up next to you,” she said, lifting one arm to point at Ger’alin. “That’s a road neither one of us needs to go down. My father would come back from the dead to kill both of us if we…” “Oh, that?” Callie laughed. “You didn’t. I doubt either one of you could have found the coordination necessary.” The sin’dorei lifted their heads from their arms and glared at the undead, twin glassy expressions of irritation and disgust on their faces. “Don’t look at me like that,” she muttered. “Neither one of you could walk unassisted, let alone…” “Thank you that’squiteenoughinformationfornow,” Alayne said hastily as a blush painted her face and neck red. Ger’alin just let his head drop back on the table with a thud. “So, what do you have planned for today?” Callie asked, changing the subject. Ger’alin muttered something that sounded like “Not my funeral, thank the Light,” but Callie ignored him, focusing her attention on Alayne. “I need to pay back the Apothecaries for all of the care they’ve lavished on Zerith,” the sin’dorei woman said slowly. “One of them mentioned that the ogres in Alterac have been getting more organized. It seems their leader, Mug’thol, has some kind of device that helps 106


him keep them in line. Such a device could be very useful,” she explained, “so, we’re going to check out the situation once my head quits pounding and try to get this object from him.” “We being?” “Well, me, Ger’alin, and you, I suppose.” “We should bring along Zerith and Dar’ja.” “We’ll bring them along for the fighting, if we need them,” Alayne replied. “All we’ll be doing today is scouting out the situation. No fighting unless we have to.” “So, should I start getting ready to rally the troops?” Callie asked, a broad grin of anticipation on her lips. Ger’alin raised his head again, a smile shining through his hangover. Alayne looked at both of them and sighed. She’d had her fill of fighting lately. “I suppose,” she whispered, closing her eyes and firming her control. “Maybe you should take care of that while Ger’alin and I scout the area?” By the time Alayne opened her eyes a few seconds later, Callie was already gone and Ger’alin was grinning in eagerness. “By the way,” Alayne asked quietly, “do you think you could teach me how to use a sword?” It took all of her self-control not to laugh at the bewildered expression on Ger’alin’s face. ~*~*~*~ “Where is everybody?” Zerith asked the innkeeper when he returned to the inn for a late breakfast. He’d been surprised to find Alayne and Ger’alin up and gone already and no sign of Callie anywhere. “They were down here earlier,” the innkeeper muttered, his voice harsh and gravelly, sounding forever as if he disapproved of something. “The two elves said something about going to watch the ogres in Alterac. The girl with them bolted out of here like a bat out of the abyss. I think she said something about rallying some group or something.” “I see,” Zerith said. After asking for and receiving a biscuit for his breakfast, he stepped out of the inn, wondering if he would be able to catch up to Alayne and Ger’alin if he hurried. Over in the clearing near the road, he saw Dar’ja practicing her sword-work. “Good morning, Zerith!” she said brightly, sheathing her sword and wiping sweat off her forehead. “You’re up rather late this morning. Do you have any plans for today? Callie said something to me about attacking the ogres in Alterac. I didn’t catch all of it; she was running to the wyvern roost like she was being chased.” “I didn’t sleep too well last night,” he replied warmly. “A couple of drunks woke me up. I have no idea what Callie was talking about but I’m on my way to find out,” he said, pointing to the road. “Care to come with me?” “I heard some kind of racket last night. Who was it? I’ll bet Ger’alin was one of them. I thought I heard someone singing the Lament.” “He was. Alayne was the other.” “Oh,” she said, stopping short. “She didn’t strike me as the kind to…” “Get falling down drunk? My sister is just full of surprises,” he laughed. “I had hoped to catch both of them still asleep this morning. I’d been planning this wonderful scene of outraged indignation since Ger’alin passed out last night near the side of the bed we had Alayne in.” Dar’ja laughed. “I thought Callie was the prankster of the group.” “When they wake me up like that, I think I’m entitled to a bit of fun at their expense,” Zerith smiled, taking Dar’ja’s hand in his own. “Besides, neither of them was sober enough to muster the effort required to do anything scandalous but it would have been really funny to make them think they had. Especially Ger’alin. He’s had a prank like that cominghis 107


direction for a while from what he’s said about himself. Come on. The innkeeper said they were headed to Alterac. Maybe we can catch up to them on the road. Maybe I can still pull one over on them, too,” he added, brightening. ~*~*~*~ “They really aren’t that imaginative, are they?” Alayne muttered as she and Ger’alin worked their way back down the mountain. “Well, it’s a design that has served them well in war in the past. No reason to change what works. Besides, it does make it easier for us to plan how to take the keep since it will probably use the same interior as the one in Menethil and in Theramore,” he replied reasonably, reaching out to steady Alayne before she slipped and fell on a patch of ice. “It does help that the place has been pretty thoroughly sacked,” the sin’dorei woman continued. “With only three buildings still intact, we have a pretty good idea of just where Mug’thol would be hiding.” “Yes,” Ger’alin said happily. “We’ll tell Zerith about it first thing. Then he can…” “Then I can what?” Zerith asked. Ger’alin turned with a start to see the priest and Dar’ja standing just beyond the entrance of the yeti cave. “Good morning, Zerith, Dar’ja,” Ger’alin said. “Alayne, this is Dar’ja,” he made the introductions. “You’ll tell me what so that I can what?” Zerith asked again after greetings had been exchanged. Alayne and Dar’ja had hung back from the two men a bit and were chatting with each other quietly, testing the grounds for a future friendship. “We were just coming to tell you about the layout of the ogre compound. After that, we can make our plan of attack. Their leader, Mug’thol, has something that the Forsaken want. So, we’re going to go in and get it from him.” The four continued back to Tarren Mill, Ger’alin detailing the location of the buildings and the possible layout of their interiors to Zerith. Alayne and Dar’ja appeared to be getting along quite well. Once back at the inn, the two women went upstairs, still chatting warmly, leaving the men to their own devices. “Do they plan that?” Zerith muttered as he watched them go up the stairs. “I wouldn’t know,” Ger’alin replied evenly. “I’m hardly invited to the Sisterhood’s meetings. Come on, we have a battle to plan while the girls do whatever it is girls do when they closet themselves up together.” The two men seated themselves at a table off in a corner and, going through many sheets of parchment, soon had a plan they both agreed would work. Just as they were finishing it up, they heard the women come back down the stairs. “Finished with your planning?” Alayne asked, her voice larded with sugar. “Yes…” the two men answered cautiously. “Good,” she said. “I’d like to begin my lessons now,” she said to Ger’alin. “Lessons?” Zerith asked. “Wait, you were serious?” Ger’alin replied. “Of course she was,” Dar’ja laughed. “Go on and get changed, Alayne. You’ll just trip yourself up in those skirts. You can use my sword if you want,” she said, unbuckling the belt from her waist and handing it to Alayne. “Listen well to what he says,” she continued, nodding towards Ger’alin. “He does know how to swing a blade.” Alayne nodded in gratitude and hurried back up the stairs to change. “What lessons?” Zerith repeated. “She asked me to teach her to use a sword. I said I would. I thought she was kidding.” 108


“Why would she want to learn to use a sword?” Zerith wondered aloud. Ger’alin concentrated, trying to remember if Alayne had said anything in the past night’s drunken haze that would answer that question. Finding nothing, he shrugged helplessly. Meanwhile, Dar’ja was biting the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing. Alayne was right; teasing these two was fun. After a few minutes, Alayne returned to the common room, Dar’ja’s leather breeches and a jerkin replacing Alayne’s customary robe. The paladin’s sword was belted at her waist and hung awkwardly, the sheath nearly tripping her when it twisted behind her legs. Ger’alin watched her walk across the room, wondering desperately how he was going to get himself out of this mess. Dar’ja smirked at him and, shoving him on the shoulder, said, “Go on. You did promise. She’s not the worst I’ve ever seen. At least she got the sword on the right side.” Turning to Zerith, she smiled, “You can come along with me,” she said sweetly. Zerith and Ger’alin glanced at each other and then shrugged. The whole situation made no sense whatsoever. Better to just go along with it, their glances said. “Follow me,” Ger’alin said, standing up and striding to the door. “There’s a clearing just up the hill a bit where you can get started.” “And I’ll just follow you,” Zerith told Dar’ja as he stood up from the table and put away the parchment and ink. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin sighed. This day was just going from bad to worse. The highlight had been planning the next battle. The whole afternoon had been downhill from there. He watched his student move awkwardly through the beginning forms and tried to not wince. Except for having no balance, no sense of planning, weak knees and wrists, she was good. “That’s enough for today,” he called out, holding up a towel for her to wipe her face with. “I think you’ve gotten the concept of swinging the sword around.” Alayne ignored him, forcing herself to go through the stances he’d shown her again. She knew she wasn’t doing it right. Still, she forced herself to keep trying. “What is it I’m doing wrong?” she asked, gasping for air. Ger’alin pushed himself to his feet and strode over to her, studying her awkward, jerky movements as she continued her efforts. With a sigh, he walked behind her and stood close to her, reaching around her waist to try to cup her hands in his own while using his legs and feet to move her legs into the correct stance. He felt her stiffen and begin to pull away but held her firmly until she was in the proper attack stance. Satisfied, he stepped back a little, still keeping his hands on hers as he guided her through the fluid motions that composed the basic parry-riposte-return to guard form. “The idea is to make only one motion. Never move more than you must. Moving takes energy; you want to conserve as much as you can. Sometimes, the only way to overcome an opponent is to outlast him. So, don’t waste motion,” he explained as he continued to guide her through the basic forms. After several more minutes, he felt her arms relax and begin to flow into the stance without his guidance. He stepped back more, walking around to watch her from the side, offering an occasional criticism or reminder to watch her wrists and keep her feet planted. “You did much better there at the end,” he praised her efforts. “You do need to learn to relax more. Working the sword isn’t something you do with just your muscles; the mind and spirit is part of it, too. You need to clear your mind, calm your spirit, and relax your body before you even think of unsheathing the blade.”

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“Yes, Blademaster,” she said with a tired smile. With quivering arms, she managed to slide the blade into the sheath and turned to head back to Tarren Mill. She blinked when she realized the sun was setting. “What time is it?” she muttered. “Time for food,” Ger’alin answered. “Food is a very important part of a swordsman’s – or woman’s – training.” “You’re just hungry,” Alayne laughed. “I’m too tired to eat. I don’t think I could lift a fork right now.” “Then I’ll lift it for you,” he said quietly. “You’ve not eaten since last night.” Alayne glanced at him, something in his voice making her wary. “I’d also like to know what’s bothering you.” “Nothing’s bothering me,” she said gaily. Ger’alin looked at her evenly for a long moment before deciding to let the matter drop, for now. ~*~*~*~ “Everyone’s here!” Callie called out. She’d been gone a day and a half and was tired, but eager to get on with the battle. “How many?” Alayne asked, working her shoulders to try to ease some of the stiffness out of them. “You wouldn’t believe me. Go see for yourself.” Alayne hurried out the front of the inn and was struck dumb at the sight of the crowd milling about the town. Easily double the size of the last gathering, the mass of them created a cacophony with their conversation. Some of the veteran members of the aptly named Disorder of Azeroth recognized the elf woman who emerged from the inn and pointed her out to the newer members. Gaping, she ran back into the inn and stared at Callie. The Forsaken laughed at the shocked expression on her friend’s face. Just then, Zerith and Ger’alin entered, and, seeing Callie, glared at her. “Either there’s some kind of festival happening tonight that we weren’t informed of,” the priest said calmly, “or we’re more popular than I knew.” “Well, you are kind of cute,” Callie teased. “Yes, I know. A lot of people came. Probably more than we need. It’s not like I can control them, though. Once people hear that you’re planning something, they want to join in. Face it, Zerith. You and Alayne have started something that appeals to the hearts of warriors everywhere. People want to join in; to help out.” “I can see that,” Zerith muttered. “And I’ll concede your point and quit worrying that the Silvermoon government is going to suspect me of raising my own private army. Still, there are way too many people out there for our next operation.” “So have some of them stay back here. I’m sure we’ll find a use for them afterwards,” Ger’alin suggested. “I suppose we’ll have to,” Zerith replied. “Now, how are we supposed to explain the plan to that throng out there? And how do we decide who to take and who to leave behind?” The four sat in silent thought for several moments, searching for answers to the priest’s questions. “You could always just go upstairs and open one of the windows. That way, everyone can see you and you can be heard,” Alayne said. “So, there’s the first problem solved.” “I think that Callie and I could weed out the best fighters and have the rest remain here. Alayne, I thought I saw Davril out in that crowd. You and he can cull through the magic users and select the best of those. Zerith, you and Dar’ja,” Ger’alin stopped, smiling for a

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moment, “you and Dar’ja can decide on the best healers and have the rest remain here and prepare in case we bring back injured.” “Well then,” Zerith sighed, fighting to hide a smile, “I suppose I have some announcements to make.” ~*~*~*~ “Did you get enough rest, Callie?” Alayne asked as the chosen fighters made their way north towards the ruins of Alterac. “Yes, mother,” Callie joked. “It’s not like I need as much as you. Sleep is for the living. Ah, we’re here,” she said as she signaled for the groups behind her and Alayne to halt. They moved off to the side of the road to allow the other three groups to pass them and make their way deeper into the town. Once Zerith’s reserve had turned the bend, Alayne and Callie moved forward, leading their group into the abandoned town hall. “They’re all asleep,” Alayne whispered. “If the ones in the fortress are as lazy, this will be easy.” “I don’t see him in here,” Callie whispered as she crept around the main room, examining each sleeping ogre in turn. The group turned to sneak out and meet up with Zerith’s group in the middle of the town when an alarm rang out, waking the ogres around them. Alayne and the magic users moved back, letting the fighters surge forward to slaughter the ogres before they could get to their feet. Rushing out into the streets, the two groups could see Zerith leading his force into the fortress. Callie rushed past him and Alayne led her group to keep pace with his as they entered the fortress and stepped into chaos. “Keep back!” Alayne shouted, directing her group to hold the entrance and prevent reinforcements from entering the keep. There were precious few of those arriving; most had been lost in the massacre in the town hall. Poking her head around the corner, she shouted orders to her followers, directing them where their abilities would be of best use. Zerith did the same for his group, moving closer to the melee to call on the Light to shield the fighters. Keeping an eye on her brother, Alayne moved further into the fortress, tossing bolts of shadow at ogres, careful to keep them small to prevent the backlash from harming any of the Disorder of Azeroth. As quickly as it had started, the fighting was dying down. The ogres were overcome by sheer numbers and skill. Ignoring her brother’s attempts to stop her, Alayne pushed and shoved her way forward, following the chimes of swords meeting spears and the battle shouts of ogres and Horde. Her eyes scanned the corpses around her, looking for the one who carried the item the Apothecaries wanted. Not finding it, she pressed on, taking the stairs up the keep, stopping only to help the occasional fighter who was being overwhelmed by an ogre’s brute strength. She could hear Zerith following behind her, stopping more frequently than she to lend his healing talents to the fighters she’d helped. “Found him?” Callie asked breathlessly as she dodged an ogre’s meaty fists, ducking under his guard to hamstring him. Alayne muttered the curse that had been used against her in Desolace and the ogre’s attack slowed, giving Callie the opening she needed to plunge her daggers into its chest. The two women continued on, the sound of fighting guiding them to the ogre’s last stand. Alayne’s eyes opened wide as she took in the scene before her. Several of their fighters lay sprawled on the floor where they had fallen on their faces, evidence that the ogres had taken them from behind. A cursory glance showed that most where just knocked out. A few would need more intense healing. “Zerith, get up here!” she called out as she moved towards the last of the fighting. Dar’ja and Ger’alin were trading blows with an ogre so large that ‘massive’ would not have done him justice. Dar’ja wore a look of grim determination as 111


she dodged the ogre’s blows, looking for an opening in his guard that would let her attack through. Ger’alin was laughing defiantly as he took the ogre’s blows on his shield and forced the brute back, his sword dancing and flashing like an extension of his arm. The two paladins seemed to have the fight well in hand so Alayne and Callie tore across the room to help quell the other pockets of fighting. Minutes that seemed like hours passed as Alayne and Callie used daggers and dread to bring down the last few ogres still standing. “Dar’ja!” Zerith’s agonized shout cut through the dying clash of combat. Alayne whirled around to see the paladin flying across the room and slamming into the wall with a crash, having failed to avoid the pain-maddened ogre’s backhand. Ger’alin was snarling, trying to force an opening in the beast’s attack. Callie sprinted over, scooting wide of the ogre in an attempt to get behind him. Without a break in his attack against Ger’alin, the massive brute swiped at Callie, knocking her flat. Alayne closed her eyes, focusing on her casting. She had just enough energy for one last spell. Luckily, it was a good one. Are you sure you’ll be able to cast it, little Alayne? “Leave me alone,” she muttered, feeling the spell start to falter. You can’t do it. “Yes, I can,” she growled through gritted teeth. Forcing herself to ignore the mocking laughter, to empty her mind and calm her spirit as Ger’alin had taught her, she reached into the Nether. “INCOMING!” she shouted, running to pull Ger’alin out of the line of fire. She grunted as the ogre’s fist slammed into her back, knocking her and Ger’alin flat. “What in the name of…?” Ger’alin started to shout angrily as he tried to push the woman off of him. “INCOMING!” she screamed again, motioning for Callie to get out of the way. The Forsaken managed to jump clear just in time. Where she had been standing, a massive ball of green flame and grey stone appeared. Pushing herself up and twisting around so she could see, Alayne focused on the demon inside, commanding it to transform into an infernal. Reluctantly, the demon obeyed her commands. Callie, Ger’alin, and Zerith stared at the monstrosity in open-mouthed awe tinged with horror. The ogre turned around to see what stood behind him and blanched. Alayne smiled, a dark smile. “Attack,” she ordered, forcing her will onto the demon. The infernal let out a scream of rage and, raring back with one of its mighty stone fists, began pounding the ogre into a pulp. Once she was certain that the ogre was dead, Alayne called the demon to a halt and began the struggle to dismiss it while she still had the willpower to dominate the un-natural being. “Stay back!” she warned when she saw others begin to close in around the demon, uncertain whether to treat it as an enemy or an ally. It’s going to turn on you now. You can’t control it. You’ve killed all your friends, little Alayne. “We’ll see about that,” she muttered. “Alayne, who are you talking to?” Ger’alin asked. He tightened his hold on her unconsciously as he began to pull them both away from the demon, scooting across the floor without standing. She ignored him, feeling her willpower begin to wane as the lack of sleep and fatigue of battle casting set in. You’re a fool. “Shut. Up!” she forced past her clenched jaws, breathing heavily through her nose. Sweat began pouring down her face as she struggled to dismiss the demon before it escaped her control. Just as she felt herself begin to slide into unconsciousness as she battled for 112


control, the infernal let out a roar of disappointment and vanished, returning to the Nether from whence it came. Alayne shuddered and fell back against Ger’alin’s chest as the strength in her arms left her unable to hold herself up. Gasping for breath, she asked, “Dar’ja? Callie?” “I’m fine,” Callie said. “Nothing broken, nothing missing.” “Dar’ja will be all right after some sleep,” Zerith answered. “She’ll probably have a headache. I’ll make sure it’s not a concussion.” With a sigh of reluctance, he stood up from Dar’ja’s side and walked out the hallway, shouting for healers to come and aid the wounded. “Ger’alin?” she asked, turning her head to look at him. “Oh, I’m just fine, thanks for asking. I’d be more worried about you. Let me check to make sure you don’t have any broken ribs from where that savage punched you.” Moving out from under her, he pushed himself to his feet. Slinging his shield on his back and sheathing his sword, Ger’alin hunched back over her, kneeling down beside her and lifting his hands to press gently on her sides, feeling for broken ribs. Alayne clenched her jaw, forcing herself not to bolt at his touch. The face of the man she’d murdered in Desolace still floated in her gaze whenever Ger’alincame too near. “No broken ribs but you’ll probably have a spectacular bruise on your back,” he said after he finished his examination. “Alayne, you’re trembling,” he muttered. “What’s the matter? Where does it hurt?” he asked, fearful that she might have internal injuries. “Zerith!” he shouted. She could hear footsteps running towards her as the nausea overwhelmed her. Unable to hold back any longer, Alayne’s arms shook as her body locked up rigidly while she vomited up every meal she had eaten in the past week, then collapsed as the darkness closed in around her. “Hell of a way to end a battle,” Ger’alin muttered as he gently lifted Alayne off the ground. “Maybe it was something she ate?” Zerith suggested as he did the same for Dar’ja. The other fighters were getting up and runners went out for assistance for those who would need litters to carry them back to Tarren Mill. “Something tells me there’s more to this than just bad meat,” Ger’alin sighed. “At least we got what we came for. Callie, would you mind digging it out of that mess?” he asked, kicking his foot towards the remains of the ogre that Alayne’s infernal had pulverized. “Ew!” the Forsaken spat. “You owe me,” she muttered as she pawed through the carnage until she had the object the Apothecaries had named as their price. “Let’s get everyone back to the village. I need a bath after wading through that mess.” ~*~*~*~ “Feeling better?” Zerith asked when Alayne came downstairs around midday. “How’s Dar’ja?” she asked, ignoring his question. “She’s fine. I’ve ordered her to stay put for the rest of the day. Since her head is pounding, she’s not likely to disobey me. How are you feeling?” “You should go check on her.” “Alayne, she’s sleeping. I was just up there ten minutes ago anyway giving her something for her headache. Are you feeling better?” “I should go check on Callie.” “Callie is fine,” Ger’alin answered from his place at the door. He’d entered the inn just moments before and had been listening to the exchange between the two with mounting irritation. “I could hear her snoring from the other side of the river. I believe Zerith asked you a question, Alayne.” 113


“I’m feeling fine,” the woman answered, trying to calm the panic she could feel threatening to overwhelm her. You’re not afraid, are you, little Alayne? “I’m not,” she whispered. Then why are you about to bolt like a horse that’s scented a snake? “I don’t know.” Maybe THIS is why? the voice mocked as a vision of the murdered man, wearing Ger’alin’s face floated in front of her. Behind him, she could see Zerith with an arrow sticking out of his chest. “Leave me alone,” she growled, spinning to grip the table nearest to her for balance.She had forgotten where she was and who was with her. “I told you to leave me alone, damn you!” “This is a definition of ‘fine’ I have never come across before,” Zerith muttered as he stood up from the table and walked over to Alayne. “People who are ‘fine’ don’t talk to themselves! What is bothering you, Alayne? Tell me so I can help you, for the love of all that is holy! Right now, you’re scaring the life out of me!” Alayne inched back, stepping away from Zerith as he moved closer to her. Ger’alin snorted and strode across the inn to help the priest shake some sense into the woman. Alayne continued to move backwards until her back was pressed against the wall. The irritation melted from Ger’alin’s eyes when he saw how panic-stricken Alayne was. “Alayne, what’s the matter?” he asked. “If you don’t tell us what’s bothering you, we can’t help you,” Zerith pleaded. “Alayne?” The woman stood there, her gaze unfocused, trembling. The skin of her face was a sickly pale white, drained completely of blood. Her lips moved in a wordless howl but no sound emerged from her throat. “Alayne, you are really frightening me,” Zerith said as he moved to try to embrace his sister. Seconds later, he and Ger’alin were staring at each other from the floor, wondering just how she had shoved them away and whether or not they would be able to find her, let alone catch up to her, where ever she had run off to. “Maybe we should just go to Silvermoon and get Jez’ral to tell us what happened while they were gone. Perhaps he knows,” Ger’alin growled as he helped Zerith to his feet. “I don’t think we’re going to get any answers out of her. I wonder what had her so spooked, though.” “Your guess is as good as mine,” Zerith muttered as he dusted himself off. “She’s been acting strange ever since I woke up after the incident at Stromgarde. Think that could be it? Just nerves or stress?” “It could be. I think something happened during those trials she doesn’t want to talk about. We should find a warlock to tell us just what it is they do during those tests. I doubt it’s just ‘recite a spell’ and answer some questions.” “I think I saw a few warlocks out there in the crowd. Let’s go get one of them,” Zerith suggested, heading for the door. His exit was blocked by a hulking orc carrying a sheaf of papers. “I’m looking for Zerith or Alayne,” the orc said brusquely. “I have orders from the Warchief.” “I’m Zerith. Alayne’s not here right now,” Zerith responded. “What orders does the Warchief have for us?” “You and your ‘Disorder of Azeroth’ are ordered to report to Desolace immediately. The centaurs clans are making a nuisance of themselves again and the Tauren have requested action. Here is a map of the region, along with notes concerning the various centaur clans. 114


We’ve worked out a peace with two of them. You’ll find further orders once you arrive in ShadowpreyVillage,” he said gruffly as he thrust the sheaf of parchments at Zerith. “I would suggest you leave right away. The Warchief, and the other leaders, have set aside mounts to speed you on your way. You’ll pick them up outside of Orgrimmar.” Not knowing exactly was expected of him, Zerith raised a fist to his chest in salute. The orc returned his gestured and then stumped out of the inn. “I’ll go out and rally the troops,” Ger’alin said. “Get them moving towards Durotar. That old greenskin said we should leave immediately and I think he means to count the seconds.” “I’ll follow and met you there this evening. Dar’ja will probably sleep for a few more hours and I have no clue where Alayne would have run off to. If anyone asks, just tell them I remained behind with the wounded to see that they were taken care of and I’ll be along shortly,” Zerith sighed as he stuffed the papers into a pocket. “I guess I’d better go track down Alayne and see if I can help her at all. Maybe she’ll have calmed down enough to tell me what’s bothering her.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne lay shivering on the ground where she’d fallen. She wasn’t sure where she was. All she really remembered was the need to run, to get away from where ever she had been. Pushing herself up, she moaned. Her head was aching abominably. Her teeth were chattering, making her head throb worse. Rubbing her arms through her sleeves, she tried to stop her shivering and figure out where, exactly, she was. “There you are,” Zerith said, relief clear in his voice. “I’ve been looking all over for you.” “I’m here,” she croaked. “I’m not sure where ‘here’ is, though.” “Near Durnholde. You ran pretty far. Why?” “I don’t remember,” she said, confused. “You and Ger’alin were crowding me; I had to get away. I couldn’t think. I could only run.” “I see. Why would you feel like you had to run from me and Ger’alin? Either one of us would die before we ever harmed a hair on your head, Alayne.” “I don’t remember,” she said fretfully. She hated the taste of bile that rose in her throat at the lie. “Well then,” he sighed, reaching out a hand to help her to her feet, “you can tell me when you do remember. Just don’t forget that I will never let anything happen to you.” “I know,” she whispered, letting her head fall against his chest as she wrapped her arms around her brother. Gritting her teeth, she forced down the panic and let herself be held while she wept against her best friend’s chest.

~*~*~*~ “Found her, I see,” Callie said as a wan and disheveled Alayne followed Zerith into Tarren Mill. “Dar’ja was starting to get worried. I’ve sent the others on ahead. We can take the bats as far as Undercity to catch the zeppelin.” “Zeppelin?” Alayne said, some of her old spirit returning. “Yes,” Zerith groaned, “thank you, Callie. Alayne, we’ve been ordered to Desolace… I hate it when she does that,” he moaned, bending down to pick her up. “Flying is not that bad!”

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Chapter Six: The Damage of Desolace

“H

ave the results of the scrying come back?” Rel’in demanded impassively when his assistant entered the room. “Yes, Master,” the human said, sniveling and bowing. “Enough of that,” Rel’in said coldly, waving off the customary formalities. His people may call him a traitor but he still held to the old ways, when convenient. “Make your report.” “It seems that rumors of Veryl’s charms were greatly exaggerated,” the assistant said lamely. Cringing at the flash of irritation in his master’s eyes, he made his report hastily. “It was a woman who killed him. Cut him to shreds with her dagger. Not an assassin,” he said, seeing his master open his mouth to ask, “one of our kind. Or, rather, one of your kind.” “And what would an elven woman be doing sneaking into our library? Has the inventory been completed? Do we know what she stole?” “Yes, Master. She took the ‘Tome of the Cabal.’” “I see,” Rel’in said stiffly. “Send word to the other covens with her description. Have them keep an eye out for this elven woman. Find out how she managed to infiltrate our upper floors and have the guards who let her through flogged. Veryl may have tolerated your lack of discipline and your laziness, but, by Sargeras, I won’t!” “It will be as you command, Master. What orders shall I send out concerning the woman, should she be found?” “That she is to be captured alive and sent to me. I will show her what we do to a trespassing thief myself. Now leave. You are dismissed.” The human bowed his way out of his master’s presence, wiping sweat from his forehead once he was well out of the room. “How did he take it, Ragnar?” an orc woman asked, cringing at the mere thought of their new master. “Surprisingly well. Find out the names of the guards on duty on the upper levels that night, Gazrah. He wants them flogged for dereliction of duty.” “He wants to flog demons? Does he know just how barely under control we have them? Ever since the…” the orc asked, confused. “No, but I’m not going to be the one to tell him that Veryl had us using demons as guards on the upper levels. Make up a name, pick someone at random, I don’t care. Just let’s find someone to for him to use to slake his temper. He makes my skin crawl!” “We could kill him,” Gazrah suggested in a soft whisper. “They’d just send another to replace him. Titans take me, where does the Legion keep finding these blasted elves? Speaking of which, let me tell you about the one who broke into our library.” “He must have been a skilled thief,” Gazrah said simply. Ragnar sighed. No matter how long orcs studied the Art, they would never be known for their brilliant deductive reasoning. “He is actually a she. And she is actually an elf. She’s about my height, blonde, straight hair that hangs to just about here,” he said, raising a hand about halfway between his jaw and shoulder. “She’s got those glowing green eyes that scream ‘blood elf’ from across the continent. Her face looks like a she-fox’s, but then, all elf faces look like that. Pass her 116


description around to everyone,” he muttered, “I’ve got to send it off to the other covens. Oh, and, he wants her alive.” “I see,” Gazrah grunted. Without another word, she turned on her heel to begin spreading the intruder’s description amongst the members of the coven in Desolace. If Rel’in wanted the thief alive, she and Ragnar needed to be certain she reached him alive if they wished to remain alive themselves. Inwardly, the orc woman shuddered. If Rel’in wanted the thief alive, it was only because he planned to make her beg for death. Veryl may have been a twisted and sadistic son of a bitch, but Rel’in’s tender mercies would have even the most hardened whore swearing celibacy before the night was over. Provided, of course, she survived. ~*~*~*~ “Ger’alin, let her sleep!” Callie muttered when she saw the elf start to sneak over to clap his hands in front of Alayne’s face to wake her. “It’s so much easier on us if she’s out cold when we have to fly.” “If you wake her, you get to ride with her,” Zerith warned. “And see these?” he said, lifting one of his sister’s hands up so that Ger’alin could get a good look at it. “They may look like ordinary fingers and fingernails to you but – if you’re smart, you’ll just take my word for it –they are really the Legendary Claws of Doom in disguise.” “Fine, fine. Have it your way,” Ger’alin said. “I was just hoping to make her laugh a little before we all head off for Desolace. I sent the others on with the mounts hours ago. If we take a flight now, we should just beat them to ShadowpreyVillage.” “Did you get a look at the mounts they are giving us?” Zerith asked. “What are they like?” “Oh, I didn’t pay much attention to them,” Ger’alin answered. “The handlers said that they were all battle-trained. Unfortunately, none of us has much practice with mounted combat. I have just enough to be able to tell you that it is nothing at all like fighting on the ground. Anyway, I will say this; the mounts match our group quite well. A rather diverse mix, just like us. You’ll get to see them when we get to Shadowprey.” “Well, let’s get going, then,” the priest said as he lifted Alayne up and began to walk towards the wyvern roosts. “Here, Zerith, I’ll take her,” Ger’alin offered. “I know you’d rather share a wyvern with Dar’ja,” he whispered, giving the priest a conspiratorial wink. “Thank you, but no,” Zerith said, his face flushing. “Your offer is…most welcome but I would not inflict the risk of Alayne wakening while in mid-air on my worst enemy, let alone you, my friend.” “The sacrifices you make for your sister,” Ger’alin grinned. “I hope she appreciates them. Well then, as you said, let’s get going.” ~*~*~*~ “Not back there. Anywhere but back there,” Alayne pleaded. “Don’t make me go back to where he…where I…just don’t make me go back there!” she screamed, tears running down her face. What? A warlock who’s afraid? “Oh, not you again,” she shouted. “Who are you and why won’t you leave me alone?” You know who I am. In the distance of the dreamscape ahead, Alayne could see a misty figure wavering and solidifying, transforming from nothing into substance. Moving closer, she watched the 117


mist coalesce into a sin’dorei woman dressed in the same kind of armor Alayne’s father had worn into his last battle. An ornate hilt rose over her left shoulder, attesting to the blade strapped to her back. Alayne moved closer, peering up into the dream-woman’s face. Her eyes widened in shock and she shrieked when her own face stared back at her, her own eyes meeting hers, dull, lifeless, and cold. She could still hear her other self’s laughter as she clawed her way to wakefulness. “Hey, stop thrashing around so much or you’ll fall off!” she heard Zerith call out. The sound of rushing wind filled her ears and she thought she felt a harsh breeze stinging her eyes. Opening them, she looked up and saw Zerith looking down at her. “Oh no,” he moaned. “Why couldn’t you stay asleep for just another five minutes?” Alayne blinked at him in confusion. Then, she clutched at him wildly when the ground beneath them gave way, dipping violently. Alayne buried her face in her brother’s chest, dug her fingers into his shoulders, and tried very hard not to scream at the top of her lungs when she realized that the ground had not dipped; the wyvern she was riding on had. Zerith gritted his teeth and focused on ignoring the fact that her nails were digging into his back. “She’s scared to death of flying,” he reminded himself again and again. “Aviophobia is a common fear. Nothing to worry over or get angry about.” After a few more minutes, the wyvern spiraled down and landed near the roost at ShadowpreyVillage. Zerith managed to dismount, dragging Alayne off with him, and waited for the others to land. “You can open your eyes now. We’re on nice, solid ground,” he whispered desperately, the pain of her nails digging into his shoulders bringing tears to his eyes. Once Alayne had ascertained that they were, indeed, no longer flying, she let Zerith set her on the ground. “Sorry about that,” she muttered contritely. “Apology accepted if you’ll promise to trim those claws of yours before we have to fly again. If you want to make up for it, you could tell me what’s bothering you, Alayne. I’m really worried about you. You haven’t been yourself for a while now.” He sighed when Alayne just looked more uncomfortable. “At least tell me what you were dreaming about that had you whimpering and thrashing about when we were in mid-air.” Alayne glanced around with a sigh. Part of her wanted to confess to everything, to pile it all on his shoulders and cower in his embrace. Part of her wanted to hold it in until she developed the strength of mind to deal with it herself. Back and forth the argument raged within her. She sighed and shook her head as if to clear it. Zerith would no doubt think she had been driven mad if she told him of the voices. And, he might think she had brought rough treatment on herself during her test. After all, he had approved of her past working in a tavern about as much as her mother had. Shreds of her terrifying dream still clung to her, freezing her tongue. “There you are!” Dar’ja called out as she hurried up the path to them, cutting Alayne off before she could argue herself into or out of talking. “Oh,” the elven woman said, blushing, “am I interrupting something?” “No, no,” Alayne said cheerfully, her smile masking the relief and irritation mixing within her. “I was just going to tell Zerith that we should stay clear of the area called Mannoroc Coven. Jez’ral told me that a bunch of cultists have taken over the ruins there. They’re followers of the Burning Legion, meaning ‘insane.’ I’ll…let you two chat for a bit. I’m…going to go see what…the others are up to,” she babbled, turning back down the path and heading towards the crowds. “What did I interrupt?” Dar’ja asked guiltily. “Nothing,” Zerith sighed. “Sadly nothing.”

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“I’m sorry,” Dar’ja said. “I can go back and get her and leave you two alone to talk, if you want.” “I don’t think it would do any good, but I thank you for the offer,” Zerith smiled. “Now, what did you want us for? Are you feeling better? How's your head?” “I'm fine. That tea you gave me did the trick. You must come see the mounts. Ger’alin and Tau’re have started assigning them out and I thought you and Alayne might want to pick yours out before the best ones are all taken.” “Then let’s get going,” he chuckled, letting her loop her arm through his as they hurried to the outskirts of the village. The mishmash of people who formed the Disorder of Azeroth were going through the motions of saddling whatever mount had been set aside for them. Tauren worked to loop girdles around wide-bellied kodos while orcs and trolls coaxed wolves and raptors to accept the bits of bridles. Elves and Forsaken climbed aboard the backs of hawkstriders, horses, or skeletal horses. Ger’alin stood, the reins of a warhorse in his hands, giving directions on how to form ranks that could barely be heard over the cacophony. Glancing up, he saw Zerith and Dar’ja approaching. Waving to them, he shouted something over his shoulder. As the two drew closer, they could see Alayne tugging on the reins of a warhorse much like the one Ger’alin led. Standing near her was a hawkstrider. Ger’alin rolled his eyes and, with a muttered “Hold these, please,” to Dar’ja as he thrust the reins of his horse in her direction, walked over to help the warlock out. Zerith and Dar’ja tried not to laugh as Alayne and Ger’alin engaged in what could only have been an argument about how to get the horse to move. Unable to hear what the pair were saying over the din, they could only imagine what words were accompanying the florid gestures the paladin and the warlock made. Finally, Ger’alin said something that made Alayne stop with a start. Then, with a laugh, she threw the reins at him and picked up those belonging to the hawkstrider. “Okay, you win,” Zerith heard Alayne say to Ger’alin as the pair came closer, leading the animals. “Consider it your lesson for the day,” the fighter smiled. Turning to Dar’ja, he took back the reins he’d given her earlier, passing her those of the horse that had been giving Alayne trouble. “When I saw this beauty, I just knew it was for you,” he said smoothly. Dar’ja cocked an eyebrow at him, not sure quite how to take that. “He’s strong, well-trained, dedicated…” “…and stubborn,” Alayne laughed. Ger’alin shot her a look that would have nailed any other person to the wall. “Callie told me what you said.” “Yes, thank you, Callie,” Ger’alin muttered beneath his breath. “Anyway, he’s good. My word of honor on it. A little head-strong but good nonetheless.” “Thank you, Ger’alin,” Dar’ja said warmly. Ger’alin did a double-take but wisely kept his mouth shut. “This one’s for you,” Alayne said, handing the reins of the hawkstrider to Zerith. “She’s sweet.” “Thank you, I think,” he muttered, eyeing the bird warily. “Mind telling me how I’m supposed to get up there?” he whispered to Alayne. He’d had to whisper loudly to be heard over the roar of the crowd around them. “I’ll show you how,” Dar’ja offered. Alayne grinned at her and stepped aside. “First, you just put your hand here,” the paladin said as she took Zerith’s hand and lifted it to the hawkstrider’s neck. “Just press a little to signal that you want her to let you mount. See?” she said, as the bird bent its knees, lowering its body closer to the ground. “Now, you just put one foot in the stirrup and swing your other leg over. I’ll hold the reins while you do that.” Praying that he wouldn’t fall off or get tangled in his robes while climbing up, Zerith managed to get aboard his mount without too many problems. Dar’ja flipped the reins over the hawkstrider’s neck and mounted her warhorse, bringing it next to Zerith. “I think I’ll call 119


him ‘Sunstrider,’” she said, patting her warhorse’s neck. “What will you name her?” she asked, pointing to the hawkstrider. “Um…El’a,” he said. “What? That was the name of my family’s pet cat!” “It’s a nice name,” Dar’ja said soothingly. “What about you, Ger’alin? What name will you give your distinguished partner in battle?” Shooting her a wicked grin, he leapt into the saddle of his warhorse. “His name is ‘Lucky.’” Alayne, Zerith, and Ger’alin roared with laughter at the outraged look on her face. “Okay, enough horsing around,” Ger’alin said once he’d finished laughing. “Let’s try to form ranks so that we can at least move around without trampling everyone.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne collapsed into the pool, her legs feeling like jelly. “I wish there were a hot spring somewhere close by,” she muttered as she massaged her aching thighs. The cold salty water of the ocean didn’t do much to relax her tired and stiff muscles. A full day of drilling following an entire evening of watching most people try to figure out how to control their mounts would make even the most dedicated equestrienne eager to fall out of the saddle. Gritting her teeth as she washed away the sweat and dirt, she rose from the water, hurried back to the shore, and donned her nightgown. Cringing as she mince-stepped back to the camp she, Dar’ja, and Callie had set up, she crawled into her sleeping bag, idly wondering where Dar’ja was. Zerith had sent Callie off earlier that evening to go speak with the centaur clans, to test the waters for a possible alliance with some of them. Rolling on her side, she stared into the flames dancing and licking at the wood. Shifting, she pulled herself and her roll closer to the heat, letting it seep into her and melt away some of the soreness. Forcing her eyes to stay open, afraid to sleep, Alayne lay there, letting idle thoughts roam through her tired mind. “I wonder where Dar’ja is…Ger’alin’s been absolutely merciless; where did he figure out so much about mounted formations? Light, I hate riding a trot…cantering is so much smoother. I wonder what Zerith will plan for us here. He’s been pre-occupied with so many things since we came here. I’m sick of eating fish…” She bit down hard when she heard the mocking laughter that had flogged her spirit for days now. “Go away.” Why do you fear me? “Because you are not me.” But I am. I am Tal’ar’s daughter. “You don’t know anything about my father or my mother. Shut up.” I am you, little fool. I know everything about you. “Not listening,” Alayne whispered as she tried to force the voice away. I know how you want to fight; to bring honor and glory to your name. I know how you want to protect those around you. I know how you feel whenever you fail. If you continue down the path you’re on, you will fail, little Alayne. Stop fighting me and embrace me! I can save everyone! “I will not fail. Not again,” she argued. The vision of Stromgarde; of Zerith falling, an arrow sticking out of his chest, floated before her eyes. “That’s low,” she muttered, dashing tears from her eyes. The vision continued. She saw the other woman, her other self, striding into the human city and melting it to the ground. I saved you then. I brought Zerith’s attackers to justice. I can keep him safe if you’ll let me, little fool. Him and Callie and Ger’alin and Dar’ja and everyone else! Just let me do it! 120


Alayne stared sightlessly into the fire, unable to respond. I can save them; I can save you. Or, have you forgotten this? Alayne shuddered as the face of the man she’d murdered floated in front of her eyes. Clenching her teeth, she tried to ignore it; tried to ignore the mocking laughter that rang in her ears. She stared straight ahead, willing herself to neither see nor hear, her eyes burning and watering with the effort. “Alayne?” Dar’ja asked as she limped up the path. “Asleep already? Ah well. Pleasant dreams, Alayne,” the paladin whispered as she crawled into her own roll and fell asleep. When she awoke the next morning, Alayne had not moved an inch. ~*~*~*~ Callie climbed out of her saddle and tried to ease some of the stiffness. She could see many others moving as gingerly as she was, unaccustomed to being in the saddle for very long. They had been in Desolace two days now and Ger’alin had been drilling them in mounted combat mercilessly. He was one of the few striding through the crowd, back straight, legs unbowed. Even Alayne, who had grown up riding out with her neighbors in Menethil, moved stiffly. “You’re enjoying this,” Callie accused Ger’alin as he passed by her. “A few more days and you’ll be fine,” Ger’alin said confidently. “We’re almost ready to ride out and do some damage.” “I know. Any clue where Zerith is? I just got back from the outpost with the information he wanted.” “I was just going to speak with him myself. Come with me; I believe he’s taking his ease at the inn.” The two walked down the road, Ger’alin pausing every so often to offer advice or criticism to one of their followers. Soon, they entered the rickety wooden and thatch inn and found Zerith sitting at a table poring over the notes and maps he had been given in Tarren Mill. “Planning our operation, chief?” Callie asked glibly. “Trying to, at any rate. At least if I’m focused on this, I don’t notice how much it hurts to move,” the priest muttered, glaring at Ger’alin. “I have the information you requested. The Magram and the Gelkis centaur clans are amendable to peace. However, not only do they want the Kolkar and the Maurdine wiped out; each one wants the other eradicated as well.” “About what I suspected,” Zerith sighed, stifling a groan as he shifted his weight. “I wonder if we could make a truce with both of them temporarily.” “From what I saw, I don’t think that’s very likely,” Callie answered. “Raiding each other’s camps is what they do for entertainment. Singing songs about the glories of war and death to their enemies is what passes for culture. Ger’alin would fit right in,” she teased. “What do you think of them, Callie?” “Me personally?” the Forsaken asked. “Yes,” Zerith responded. “You’ve spent time with both of the clans. Of the two, which one do you think would make the best ally?” “I honestly don’t know. The Gelkis are close by so having them angry at us would not be a good idea. The Magram, though, are a power to be reckoned with as well. I say that we just try to avoid getting involved in their inter-clan dispute altogether.” “Well, our mission kind of is to get involved,” he muttered, handing her the orders he’d received. “We’re to put an end to the centaur threat from Desolace for good. That means driving out any who won’t ally with us and forging ties with those who will. We’ll have to 121


pick one of the two. For now, let’s focus on cleaning out the other two: the Kolkar and the Maurdine. At least we know they aren’t interested in any alliance.” “I just got back from speaking with the scouts we sent to the mountain passes,” Ger’alin said, taking that as a signal from Zerith to begin his report. “They say that…” he trailed off as Alayne and Dar’ja limped into the main room. “Callie!” Alayne said brightly. “I heard you’d come back.” “Good afternoon, Alayne,” Callie returned. “I want to ask a favor of you,” Alayne said. Zerith and Ger’alin glanced at each other in confusion. Alayne and Dar’ja ignored both of them and bent over, whispering in the Forsaken woman’s ears. “Sure,” the Forsaken laughed. “Sounds like fun. Let’s go.” The three women limped out of the inn, laughing and talking in an undertone where the two men couldn’t hear. Zerith waited until he figured they would be out of eye shot and then limped over to the doorway and glanced up and down the road, looking for signs of which way they went. “Going to spy on the Sisterhood?” Ger’alin asked. “Yes,” he answered. “I’ll come with you. I’ve always wondered what they’re doing when they go off by themselves like that. Besides,” he continued, “I’ll give you my report while we follow them.” ~*~*~*~ “I think they went the other way,” Zerith muttered. “No, see that? That’s definitely Alayne’s shoeprint.” “How under the Light can you tell that?” “Because she wears moccasins. And, she’s the only person wearing them who would be walking in phase with two people wearing boots,” he said, pointing to the tracks. “Did you never go out in the woods as a boy?” “I was a little too busy with my studies,” Zerith said defensively. “We can’t all be wilderness survivors like you. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if you spent any time out of the forests. Not that I’m complaining. Much. Your knowledge has come in quite handy on many occasions,” he babbled nervously. Mischief-making had never been his strongest trait and the priest did not want to wind up back on square one with Dar’ja. “Sssh,” Ger’alin hissed, cutting Zerith off. Turning his head and cupping an hand to his ear, he listened. “They’re just around the bend. Be quiet.” The two men tiptoed up the stone path, careful not to make a sound. Reaching the curve, they peered around cautiously, not wanting to be seen. “My word,” Ger’alin breathed. Zerith said nothing, just gawking at the sight. Up ahead, Dar’ja was teaching Alayne some of the finer points of hand-to-hand combat. Callie stood on the sidelines, offering the occasional tip to the novice fighter. The two elven women would circle each other, looking for an opening, Dar’ja giving the odd lesson on what to look for or when to move and how while she flipped Alayne over her shoulder or tripped the warlock up. “If we could just get them to do this in the middle of town and charge admission,” Ger’alin muttered, “we would be rich.” “Ger’alin!” Zerith said hoarsely, scandalized. “Oh don’t give me that look, Reverend Father,” the fighter said sarcastically. “You know you were thinking the exact same thing.” “I was not!” Zerith protested, a blush rising to his face. “Yes, you were. That’s why your face has gone scarlet.” 122


“It has not! Don’t project your twisted fantasies on to me. Besides, one of them is my sis…ter…” he trailed off as he noticed motion in his peripheral vision. Turning his head, he saw the three women staring up at him, their faces perfect expressions of outrage. All three stood with hands on hips, one knee cocked, feet tapping. “I…we…um…” Zerith started, searching for an explanation that wouldn’t put him further in the dog house with the girls. “Zerith,” Ger’alin said between clenched teeth, “shut up and run!” the fighter said as he suited words to action. ~*~*~*~ Davril and Tau’re shuffled up the dirt road towards the inn after another practice session with their mixed group of magi and fighters. Alayne and Zerith’s innovations had inspired their creativity into forming a squad who excelled in mixing magic and steel in close-quarter combat. Thus far, while their efforts had been less than stellar, the Forsaken and Tauren were both cautiously optimistic that it could be done. “What is that?” Davril asked, pointing to the dust cloud racing towards them. Seconds later, he and Tau’re were picking themselves up off the ground. “Why were Ger’alin and Zerith running so hard? Is there an attack coming?” Tau’re asked just as the answer crested the hill in hot pursuit. He and Davril threw themselves out of the way as two elven women and a Forsaken ran down the street waving fists and shouting at the top of their lungs. “Ah, to be young again,” Davril said, a smile on his lips as he watched the chase. ~*~*~*~ “Climb! Climb!” Ger’alin shouted as he jumped into a tree. “They can’t reach us up here! They’re too short!” Zerith pulled himself up into the tree behind Ger’alin, clutching at the trunk for support while he found his footing and tried to catch his breath. The three women skidded to a halt beneath the tree, glaring up into the branches in frustration. Then, brightening, Callie and Dar’ja boosted Alayne up so she could grab at one of the lower branches. “Oh, this is bad,” Ger’alin said. “This is really bad.” As Alayne tried to pull herself up on the branch, the limb snapped, dropping her onto the two women below her and knocking all of them to the ground. Blinking, somewhat stunned by the fall, the girls tried to collect themselves for another effort. However, the humorous nature of the situation struck them and soon all three were rolling on the ground beneath the tree, laughing and pointing up to the two elven men still seeking sanctuary in its branches. Every time one of them would begin to wind down, they would just glance up and be gripped by laughter once again. “We’d like to discuss a truce,” Zerith shouted down once it seemed like the girls’ laughter was drawing to a close. His request set off another round of mirth, leaving him looking down in consternation. He opened his mouth to say he was coming down but Ger’alin clapped a hand over it. “Be quiet. I haven’t seen her laugh in far too long,” the fighter whispered. “If climbing a tree like a fool amuses her, then just hand me a banana and call me a monkey!” Zerith gave the man a considering look and then nodded, sitting down carefully on the branch and letting his feet swing beneath him. “You can come down, now,” Dar’ja shouted up to the pair, a dangerous twinkle in her eyes. “We’ll discuss the terms of surrender.”

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~*~*~*~ “…and we’ll just have to make certain that we keep an eye out so we’re not flanked from the south,” Ger’alin muttered as he and Zerith completed the last of the plans for their attack against the Kolkar. “Alayne’s going to claw me when she finds out she drew reserve,” Zerith muttered as he examined the positions of the various forces arrayed on the map. “Everyone hates reserve. Still, someone has to take care of it. Should we go gather everyone up and start telling them what the plan is?” “No. Go and get just the people we picked out to lead each strike group and have them come here. The Maurdine aren’t very far away and it’d be foolish to announce our plans to them. They can probably hear us all the way up in the mountains.” “Any clue what kind of future forfeit they’ll ask for? I think that might make two I owe Alayne.” Ger’alin said as he turned to go. “No idea. I did not like the look in their eyes when they announced that one. Still, it can’t be any worse than having to carry them into the village. I had enough trouble just carrying Dar’ja. I still can’t figure out how you managed Alayne and Callie at the same time.” “Balance is the key. Besides, it helps that neither one of them wears chain mail. I suppose we shouldn’t worry about it. I still think it was worth it just to see her laugh like that.” “Maybe you can climb another tree to tell her she drew reserve,” Zerith chuckled. “Anything to keep her from looking daggers at me again. I will never spy on them again so long as I live.” “Yes, we will. We just won’t get caught again,” the fighter tossed over his shoulder as he hurried out of the inn to find and bring the others back. Zerith stared after him in amazement before shaking his head with a laugh. Yes, they probably would spy on the girls again. It was some of the best fun he’d had in a while. Even the part where he’d had to run and climb a tree had been fun. “What are you smiling at, you nosy little priest?” Dar’ja asked so sweetly that Zerith quickly wiped the grin off his face. “Nothing,” he answered. “Just thinking about…” “We know what you’re thinking about,” Alayne said lightly as she dropped onto the bench next to him. Dar’ja walked over behind him and, putting a hand on his shoulder, leaned over him to examine the map. Zerith stared straight ahead, keeping his face impassive by an effort of sheer will. “Have you assigned the reserves, yet?” Callie asked, pitying the poor man and giving him a way out. By his grimace, that had not been a good question to ask. “Yes, have you?” Alayne asked, ceasing her teasing and sparing him the rest. “I’d like to request reserve duty,” she added, trying not to laugh at the startled look on his face. “Then you have it,” he said, pointing to the unit he’d assigned her. “You’ll be positioned here along the road to keep an eye out for reinforcements.” “Where am I?” Callie asked, sliding onto the bench. “Let’s just wait until everyone else is here before we get started on assignments,” Zerith suggested. “That sounds fine to me,” Dar’ja grinned. “We can discuss what it is you two are going to have to do for us instead. Tell me, Ger’alin, how do you feel about untangling yarn? As for you, Zerith,” she said with a sparkle in her eye. “I have something special in mind for you.”

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~*~*~*~ “You actually asked for reserve duty?” Callie asked Alayne as the three of them made their way down to the area they’d picked out for their camp. “Yes. I’d overheard them mentioning who was getting it anyway so I figured I’d spare Zerith the hassle and pretend like it’s what I wanted. I’ve caused him enough trouble lately,” she giggled. “I wonder if he noticed that he still had bark stains on his robes.” “Speaking of Zerith,” Callie said, turning to glance at Dar’ja, “what’s this ‘something special’ you have in mind for him? Frankly, I think what you are planning for Ger’alin is amusing…” “Amusing?” Alayne interrupted, laughing, “It’s brilliant! Making him help you knit a bright pink scarf that he’ll have to wear? That’s a masterpiece of mischief. But, what do you have in mind for Zerith?” Dar’ja grinned knowingly but said nothing. “Come on, tell us,” Callie prodded. “If what you told Ger’alin is anything to go by, it’ll be worthwhile to see what you’re planning for Zerith. Alayne, had you thought of anything for your brother?” “I had been thinking about making him wear my old tavern dress. But then I realized I’d have to actually get it to fit him and I can’t sew much beyond putting buttons on something.” “That would be hilarious. I’d love to see him in that get-up,” Callie giggled. “Do you still have your old dress with you?” “I carry it with me, yes,” Alayne replied. “It’s perfectly serviceable if I wear a highnecked shirt under it and it’s something I don’t mind getting stained or torn. I prefer wearing my normal robes, though, since I had to work to earn them. But, if we were to have to do something like spend a significant amount of time traveling, I’d wear my old clothes just because I don’t mind so much if they get destroyed.” “Why not just buy new ones?” “Oh, please,” Alayne said, rolling her eyes. “Why buy new when I have perfectly good ones already? The dresses themselves are only bad if you don’t wear a shirt under them.” “Alayne,” Dar’ja asked, clearing her throat, “do you think I could borrow that dress?” “Why?” Alayne replied, baffled. “I don’t mind, though.” “I could use it for something.” “Something special?” Callie asked archly. “Something like that,” Dar’ja muttered sullenly. “Absolutely not,” Alayne said quickly. “No way. Zerith would kill me.” “Wait, let’s hear what she’s planning,” Callie said quickly. “We don’t have to assume the worst.” “It’s along the lines of what you were thinking,” Dar’ja admitted. “He’s just so…straight-laced.” “Right,” Alayne said. “This is me leaving this conversation. Now. It’s a horrible idea. Zerith’s got enough on his mind right now. And, trust me, his reaction will be the same towards you as it was towards me when he found out I was willing to even use the smallest part of what I learned working there to help out. He won’t like it. He won’t be amused by it. And, if he thinks I had any part of it, he’ll kill me.” “Relax,” Dar’ja said soothingly. “It will be funny. I’ll go up to his room tonight wearing that outfit and see what his reaction is. It’ll be priceless.” “No, it won’t be,” Alayne groaned. “Trust me. There are just some pranks you don’t play on men. That’s one of them.”

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“Like you would know,” Dar’ja retorted. “Just how much experience with me do you have, Mistress of the Taverns?” “Not much,” Alayne admitted. “Actually, none whatsoever. However, I did get to see this scenario play out time and time again among humans. Here’s what will happen. You’ll go up to his room wearing my dress. He will either be horrified and shocked that you would think he would take advantage of you. He may even be offended and wind up thinking less of you for it. After all, it’s not like you’ve known him very well and the first impression you made on him wasn’t the greatest from what I’ve heard.” “And if he’s not shocked or horrified?” Dar’ja said pointedly. “If he reacts like any other man would?” “Then you’ll think less of him and you’ll hold it against him. There are just some things you don’t do if you care about someone like that.” “I think I’ll decide for myself what I will and will not do,” Dar’ja scoffed. “Like I said, then,” Alayne muttered. “Leave me out of it.” Striding off, Alayne left the Forsaken and the Blood Knight in her dust and prayed that the explosion from this stupidity would not land back on her. ~*~*~*~ Zerith studied the maps he and Ger’alin had marked up over the day. He also had a list of supplies they would need to carry with them and estimates on what they could scavenge from the centaur. Tau’re had, helpfully, provided the last. The tauren with them seemed more eager than the rest to clean out the centaur. Zerith sighed and shook his head, ridding himself of the stray thoughts. He needed to focus on deciding whether or not they would be able to handle the Alliance presence at Nijel’s Point at their backs. Ger’alin had said the Alliance would, more likely than not, ignore them as long as they made no move against their claim in Desolace. After all, they did have Thunder Axe Fortress staring them in the face. Thunder Axe Fortress was filled with members of the Burning Blade cult. Alayne had mentioned them being in Mannoroc Coven as well. Perhaps they should question her further to find out more about this cult…maybe she had some idea of what to expect from the other warlocks… A tapping at his door drew the priest out of his thoughts. He had asked the kitchens to send up supper on a tray for him so he could spend more time thinking over the decisions he would have to make once the Kolkar centaurs had been dealt with. Then there were the strange monsters that Callie had reported living in the kaldorei ruins north of the Kolkar’s territory. The tapping continued and Zerith dragged himself to the door. Supper and a break from worrying over battle first. Then he would return to his maps and his lists. Opening the door, the priest looked down and then wondered if he was awake or asleep. Dar’ja stood there holding his supper tray, smiling up at him as if there were nothing amiss about the situation at all. However, she had changed into a dress that he both approved and disapproved of. Clenching his jaw to keep it from falling open, he opened the door wider and motioned for her to bring the tray in. “Why are you brining this?” he asked curiously, forcing himself not to react. This was normal. This was just some mad prank the girls were playing on him. All he had to do was keep his attention on her face and pretend she was wearing her normal leathers and chain mail. “I just thought you might be getting a little hungry,” she said with almost-convincing innocence. 126


“I was,” he replied. Clearing off space on his desk, he took the tray from her and sat down. Gesturing for her to make herself comfortable, he pulled up one of the maps Ger’alin had redrawn and handed it to her. “What do you think of that?” he asked as he began eating. “I…I think it looks like a good plan,” she muttered, thrown completely off her stride. “Though, why are you setting a watch on the ruins?” “Because the ruins are occupied by creatures of indeterminate origin and allegiance,” he said, pausing between spoonfuls of soup. “It’s not a heavy watch – Ger’alin originally suggested a quarter of our ranged capacity be sitting up there. I talked him down to no more than a dozen on a three-watch rotation.” Dar’ja sat silently for a moment, toying with the lace on the low-cut neckline. Zerith did his best to ignore it, focusing on eating. Whatever game she was playing, he wasn’t going to react. He was not going to give her further ammunition to use against him in one form or another. “She didn’t say this might happen,” Dar’ja muttered after a while, crossing her arms over her stomach and pulling her knees up to her chest as if she were embarrassed and trying to hide. “Who didn’t say what?” the priest asked evenly. “Alayne,” Dar’ja started. “Alayne thought this would be a good idea?” he asked skeptically, gesturing to Dar’ja. “Actually, she thought it was a bad one,” the woman admitted. “So, why do it? Did you lose a bet against her or Callie?” “I…I don’t know,” she sighed, flushing furiously. “I just wasn’t thinking…” “That’s clear,” the priest chuckled as he finished off his supper. “Don’t get me wrong, I like it. I’m just not sure what you were hoping to achieve. Either it was to get me completely flustered so you could laugh at my expense or it was something yet even more foolish than that.” Dar’ja’s face hardened and flushed a darker red. “Please, for the love of the Light,” Zerith groaned, “tell me you didn’t pay attention to the whole ‘obligation to the blood’ movement that was going around in Silvermoon. You have far too much sense than to think that you have some sort of duty to…” “That’s not what I was after. I don’t know what I was after,” she sighed. “I guess your overreaction but you didn’t overreact. I wasn’t expecting that.” Zerith stood up and walked over to the bed where the woman was sitting. Sitting down next to her, he put an arm around her shoulders and patted her on the back. “If it was a reaction you were looking for, I could give you one to make you feel better,” he offered. She stared at him for a moment in confusion. Grinning, he leaned down and brushed his lips against hers. “There,” he whispered. “I reacted. Now, would you mind helping me sort through these lists and decide what we’re going to do after the Kolkar are dealt with? Normally, I’d have Ger’alin up here but he said he was going to climb up the cliffs nearby and get a general feel for the layout of the Maurdine’s territory.” “Sure,” Dar’ja said brightly. She hadn’t been sure what she was after to begin with but this…this was fine with her. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin sprang up out of the water and flung his hair out of his face. The sea was cold off the coast of Desolace but he didn’t mind. He needed a good cooling-off after spending the evening climbing up the rocky cliff-face to spy on the Maurdine. The centaurs seemed to be expecting an attack at any moment. He wondered what they would think when the army they knew about ignored them entirely and headed to their cousins the Kolkar. Whatever it was, he was sure it would be amusing. 127


Swimming back up to the shallows, he stood in the waist-deep water and scrubbed at his scalp. “That works better if you have soap,” a gravelly voice called out from the beach. “Callie?” he replied. “What are you doing here?” “Oh, don’t get so embarrassed. I’ve seen just as good as before. We Forsaken aren’t quite as modest as the living.” “No, that doesn’t bother me so much,” he said, glad that the darkness hid his blushes. “But, what are you doing? And please tell me you’re alone.” “I am,” she said. “Are you almost finished? I could use your help with something.” “I’ll be right out,” he sighed, striding out of the water and ignoring her glances. Toweling off and putting his clean clothes on, he wrung out his hair, tied it back from his face, and then looked down at her expectantly. “Enjoy the show?” he said dryly. “Eh, I’ve seen better.” “What did you need, Callie? Or is this another one of your…” “No, it’s Alayne,” the rogue said quickly. “I think she’s ill.” “What’s wrong with her? And did you talk to Zerith?” “Zerith is…well…Dar’ja’s in his room and they sounded like they were having a conversation that I shouldn’t interrupt. No, Ger’alin,” she sighed when she saw the look on his face, “an actual conversation with voices and words. A discussion. And, maybe ‘ill’ is the wrong word in this context. ‘Strange’ would be better.” “What’s wrong with her?” her repeated. “Well, earlier, she and Dar’ja kind of had an argument. Then, suddenly, Alayne seemed to change her mind about what Dar’ja wanted and was being extremely helpful. So helpful, in fact, that I’d have thought she was being sarcastic if she didn’t seem sincere.” “Women,” Ger’alin muttered. “Anyhow, after Dar’ja left to continue with her plan for Zerith…” “I really don’t need to know any more…” “Alayne laid down to get some sleep. She started talking in her sleep. Arguing, actually, with herself and someone else. And now she’s just lying there with her eyes wide open and her entire body tensed. I tried to lift her arm but she’s as locked up as a three-day corpse.” “Show me,” he ordered, his voice hoarse. Callie leapt up and scrambled ahead of him, leading him to the small campsite the three women had set up for themselves. None of them wanted to stay in the inn. Alayne lay flat on her back, exactly as Callie had described. Her hands were curled into tightly-clenched fists and her eyes were wide-open and unseeing. Her jaws were clamped so tightly that Ger’alin was surprised she had not broken her teeth. “I have never seen anything like this.” “I haven’t either,” Callie admitted. “What’s she saying?” he muttered, squatting down near her head and leaning over so he could try to make out the garbled speech. “Go away,” she seemed to be muttering. “Just leave me alone.” Ger’alin sat back and stared at her. He waved a hand in front of her face. He clapped his hands just in front of her eyes. She was completely unaware of anything going on around her. He pressed his fingers against her neck and jerked his hand back. “Fever?” Callie asked. “No. Her heart is beating so fast I’m surprised you can’t hear it.” Callie stared at him with a helpless expression. “I’ll stay here with you tonight,” he said after a long pause. “Let me go get my sleeping roll.” ~*~*~*~

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Zerith stared at Ger’alin as the Blood Knight recounted the events of the past night. Alayne had looked worse for wear and complained that she had not slept well. So far, no one had told her that they had been unable to rouse her. She had drunk the tea Zerith prepared for her headache and then had promptly buried her nose in a spellbook. “I’ve never heard of anything like that,” the priest sighed. “No illness that I know of would do that.” “Well, she was locked up and as rigid as a corpse most of the night. Even after I tried rubbing liniment on her arms to see if that would help at all, she was still wound up tighter than a spring.” “Maybe it’s just the strain of battle,” the priest murmured, hoping it was something as simple as that. “Maybe. See if you can get her to talk to you. Something is bothering her and I wish I knew what.” The priest nodded and walked over to where Alayne was sitting. The rest of the small village was bustling with the final preparations for the fight to come. Alayne said studying her spells, committing a few new ones to memory. She had not summoned any of the demons she could control. Zerith hoped that she would not need any of this preparation today. After all, she was in the reserve group. “What’s bothering you?” he asked baldly, sitting down in a chair near her and pulling it up to the end of the table next to her. “Nothing,” she said, sounding completely sincere. “Granted, I didn’t get the best night’s sleep last night but…” “According to Ger’alin and Callie,” Zerith said, forcing himself to remain calm, “you were arguing with yourself in your sleep. And, your muscles were so tense that Ger’alin wonders how you survived with no broken bones. Now, what is eating away at you, Alayne? We’re all worried about you.” “Nothing,” she replied, drawing a deep breath. “It’s nothing. It’s just…I’m worried about this battle. I’m always worried when we go into battle. It’s just something I need to get over.” “Alayne,” he sighed, shaking his head. He knew she was hiding something from him. “Have it as you will,” he muttered when she glared at him. “I just wish you would talk to me about it.” “There’s nothing to talk about. So, how did your evening go?” she asked sweetly. “It went fine once Dar’ja learned she wasn’t going to get a reaction from me just because she was wearing a tavern wench’s outfit.” “Oh?” “She and I had a long discussion about our relationship and then she went to sleep and I had a cot made up on the floor. Actually, she started nodding off during the discussion which is why she didn’t rejoin you at your camp. Had she done that, I might have been standing over you this morning myself instead of hearing it second-hand from Ger’alin who did hover over you until he passed out himself.” Alayne stared into the distance, unseeing. Zerith clenched his fists beneath the table, willing himself to have more patience. Her lips moved as if she were speaking with someone else. Finally, she shook herself and blinked. Turning to meet his carefully-patient gaze, she shrugged. “I’m sorry that I’m being such a worry. I’ll do my best to get over my fears so you won’t have to worry,” she said, her voice flat and lifeless. “Alayne…” he sighed. “We have a battle to prepare for,” she interrupted. “Let’s get on with it.” ~*~*~*~ 129


Zerith shrugged helplessly at Ger’alin when the Blood Knight glanced at him questioningly. Alayne was being rather stubborn. The more he had tried to press her to talk to him about whatever it was that was bothering her, the more harried she had gotten until she finally quit speaking altogether. Whatever it was, she was not going to discuss it with him. He began considering whether or not Ger’alin could get it out of her. Maybe if the Blood Knight took her out drinking and managed to refrain from getting into a contest with her, he could succeed where Zerith had failed. The group began mounting up and riding out of the village. Zerith trotted his hawkstrider up to where Dar’ja and Callie were riding. The two women were chatting amiably. Dar’ja seemed to be taking his advice about not trying to impress or overwhelm everyone to heart. She was more relaxed and seemed happier now that she wasn’t trying to prove herself better than everyone around her. Even Ger’alin seemed to be warming up to her slightly though, from the pointed glares the pair gave each other, the priest didn’t think they’d ever be close friends. Alayne rode near the head of the column. She was gesturing and speaking with Ger’alin. Her shoulders were tense and Zerith could tell she was anxious about something. Still, whatever it was, she fought to hide it from everyone. Clucking to his hawkstrider, the priest caught up with Callie and Dar’ja and smiled. “Eager to get this over with?” Callie asked. “I’m just hoping to report a sweeping success to Thrall,” Zerith admitted. “I want to prove to him that we can be trusted. I’d also like to prove that we’re going to work for the good of the Horde. I’m still nervous that someone is going to think I’ve gathered up a private army and will move against us on a rumor that we’re rebelling.” “Still, it is a fun way to prove ourselves. Much better than just sitting around waiting for someone else to do all the work,” Dar’ja grinned. “I do have to admit that Ger’alin was right about that.” “Ger’alin is right about a lot of things,” Callie nodded. “And, this is fun. I wouldn’t have thought that adventuring with the living would be.” “For now, let’s focus on remaining among the living through this battle,” Zerith suggested. “I’ll ride up ahead and see what Ger’alin thinks. Good luck and remember your parts in the fight to come.” Nodding politely, he clucked to his hawkstrider again and moved to the head of the column. Alayne gave him a tight-lipped smile and Ger’alin greeted him absently. They were passing through the narrow pass that marked the start of Mannoroc Coven. Alayne began to tremble slightly but Zerith ignored it. She seemed determined to keep her distance about whatever was worrying her and he needed to focus on the battle to come. Afterwards, he would focus on fighting to get the truth from her. ~*~*~*~ “Master, master!” Ragnar gasped as he ran into Rel’in’s chambers. The elf glared at the human in annoyance. “This had better be good,” Rel’in muttered as he closed the tome he’d been studying. “I dislike being disturbed from my studies.” “The intruder; they found her. The elf bitch that killed Veryl,” he said as he gulped for air. “She just rode past. She’s with some kind of army. They took the road towards the Magram village.” “Very good, Ragnar,” Rel’in said, a slight smile on his lips. “I assume that she’s being followed carefully, as we discussed should she show her face back in Desolace?”

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“Yes, Master,” the human said. “If I may…” he began, faltering at the glance his master gave him. “Yes?” “I think they’re planning to attack the Kolkar. Some of our lookouts overheard them discussing a battle. They were moving through the area fairly leisurely,” he explained, desperate to be believed. “They’re obviously not much of an army.” “Oh?” Rel’in laughed. “What are their numbers? Did your lookouts think to count them? Or to observe who the leaders are, that we might take them out easily? How many fighters do they have; what about their magi? Surely they have some of those. You amuse me, Ragnar, when you pretend to knowledge you do not possess. Now, go. Prepare my mount. Since none of you can be trusted, I will observe this ‘army’ myself.” ~*~*~*~ Callie whooped as she rode down another centaur, ducking its attack as she plunged her daggers into its chest. Around her rang the song of combat; steel clashing against steel, bows twanging as arrows were launched, and the whoosh of spells flying to their targets. Up ahead she could see Zerith holding his group aloof, directing the healers towards where they were most needed. In the fore of the fight she could hear Ger’alin and Dar’ja shouting out elvish battle cries as they charged the centaur. The Forsaken woman smiled as she let loose the anger she’d been holding in at her friend for days and used it to help guide her strokes against the Kolkar. “This is how I like to start a morning!” she heard one of her fellows shout. Grinning over at him, she circled behind his enemy and, with a quick motion, hamstrung the centaur. “That one counts as mine!” she laughed as the orc she’d assisted cleaved the centaur’s head from its body. “The problem with such a large group is that the fights are never long enough!” another Forsaken laughed merrily as he glanced around. “We should put more in reserve, just to give them a fighting chance.” “Don’t let Zerith or Alayne hear you say that,” Callie grinned. “Both of them favor overwhelming the enemy. Go on ahead; it looks like Ger’alin could use some more fighters. If you hurry, there might be some fight left in those horses.” Callie chuckled to herself as some of the more hotheaded galloped towards the rear of the camp. Others stayed back with her, forming a second reserve group. The battle had lasted just over an hour with light casualties on their side. Glancing over her shoulder, she could see Alayne and the others assigned to reserve standing atop an outcropping of rock, watching the battle in case they might be needed. Turning back to the combat, Callie decided that the reserves would be completely fresh. The main force had the remaining centaurs pinned between them and the mountain and, from the looks of things no reinforcements were coming to help the half-men, half-horse creatures. “They’ve got this one wrapped up,” she muttered to one of her fighters. “I’m going to go tell the others to head back and prepare for tonight’s celebration. I’m sure our reserves will be glad to be of some use,” she joked. “They seem to have decided that already,” the fighter laughed, pointing at the hill. “I just saw them turn and run down that hill.” “Well, let’s just go get them, shall we?” Callie said lightly, fear worming its way into her gut. ~*~*~*~

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“There they are,” Rel’in said, pointing to a group of fighters and magi milling about beneath the road. The elf woman stood, watching something on the other side of the road, with others on top of a rise. “We can pin them against that outcropping,” he muttered. “But Master,” Ragnar said in surprise, “they’re double our number.” “It amazes me, Ragnar, how you manage to get out of bed in the morning. We can double our numbers easily,” the elf said coldly. “Summon the infernals and felguards,” he ordered the warlocks accompanying him. “We’ll give them something to keep them occupied. Take the elf woman alive.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne had stood, watching the battle, irritated with herself and praying that Zerith, Callie, and the others would be well. She had decided to tell them about what had happened during her trials. Even if the thought of reliving that night gripped her with dread, she would tell them. Anything to ease the frustration and disappointment she sensed coming from them. She would even confess to what happened at Stromgarde and the terrifying dreams and visions she’d been having. “They’ve got that one wrapped up,” Davril muttered bitterly. “We didn’t get to lift a finger this round.” “Oh, I’m sure we’ll get our chance next time,” Alayne said absently. “Maybe we should go on over there and see if they need us for anything now that it seems to be just about over.” “Or maybe we should go see what those demons want,” Davril said in alarm. Alayne turned back to see a group of warlocks and demons rushing towards their position. “To arms!” she shouted, moving into casting range of the attackers. “We fight the Legion!” Relief flooded through her as she began to hurl bolts of shadow at the demons. At least she could rid herself of some of her tension before having to confess to Zerith. Behind her, she could feel her other self waiting in the wings, eager for the chance to take over. Taking a firm hold on her temper, Alayne searched for a target in the melee. ~*~*~*~ “Oh no!” Callie shouted as she spurred her horse into a gallop. The reserve groups were being overwhelmed by demons and warlocks wearing the mantle of the Burning Blade. Davril and Alayne were trying desperately to rally their forces to fight on but lacked sufficient numbers of fighters to hold off the demons while they cast their spells. Several magi lay sprawled on the ground, moaning in pain. “Ride back and bring the others, now!” she shouted as she dove into the fray. Her appearance gave fresh heart to the Disorder of Azeroth and they rallied, almost managing to hold the demons off. Then, just as Alayne was about to give out a cry of triumph, one of the warlocks swooped down on her, grabbing her and pulling her onto his mount. With a shout, the warlocks turned and left the field. The demons continued to attack, clearly intending to disrupt the Disorder of Azeroth long enough for their masters to get away with what they had come for: Alayne. “Help me!” Alayne screamed as she struggled against her captor. Terror painted her face and she fought wildly. Ignoring the demons, Callie galloped after her friend. “Alayne!” the undead screamed. “I’ll get you, Alayne!” Lashing her horse with the reins for speed, she drew closer to the warlock who held Alayne tightly with both arms, guiding his demonic horse with his knees. The sin’dorei woman had begun sobbing with fear as she tried to grapple with her attacker. Callie watched in horror as Alayne stopped 132


struggling, her arms and legs drooping as if they were filled with lead. The warlock managed an agonized glare. Clearly some spell had been used to keep her from struggling too much. “Oh no you don’t,” he snarled as Callie drew close enough to make a grab for her friend. The man struck out with a small staff, knocking Callie from her horse. The undead hit the ground with a sickening crack, nearly blacking out as she felt the bones of her shoulder crunch beneath her. Gritting her teeth, holding her now-useless arm with the other, she turned and began to run back to the battle to get help for Alayne. ~*~*~*~ “What in the name of the Light happened here?” Ger’alin breathed as he surveyed the remnants of their reserve force. He’d never expected to have to fight a second battle, and this one against demons like the one Alayne had called upon in Alterac, right after battling horses. “They caught us from behind,” Davril answered. “A group of warlocks and their demons. They just attacked. We were overwhelmed almost immediately.” “I see,” Ger’alin muttered as he glanced around at the carnage. He could see Zerith and Dar’ja moving through the crowds, laying hands on the injured. “You did well,” the fighter said with a smile. “It’s good to know that even our reserve group can stand by itself in battle.” “Where is Callie? And Alayne?” Zerith asked as he finished healing the last of the wounded. “They’re not with this group. Where are they?” he demanded, panic rising within him when Davril didn’t answer. “What is that?” Ger’alin asked, pointing down the road. Giving Zerith a hand up behind him, the fighter kicked his horse to a canter, slowing as he drew near a familiar sight. Callie’s horse limped, winded and rider less, back up the road. “Light no,” he heard Zerith whisper. “Mount and rally!” Ger’alin shouted over his shoulder. “We’ve got to find them!” ~*~*~*~ “Oh, thank the Light,” Callie sobbed as she saw Zerith and Ger’alin dismount and run to her. “They’ve taken her!” “Hush for a moment,” Zerith muttered as he examined her shoulder. “Ger’alin, brace her. This is going to hurt,” he warned as he wrenched her broken and dislocated shoulder back into a more normal shape. The Forsaken woman yelped in pain, remaining conscious only by effort of will while the priest worked his healing magic on her injuries. “Now, tell me what happened.” “They took her! Alayne, they just grabbed her and ran off!” Callie wept. “He knocked me from my horse and took her away!” “Who? Who took Alayne?” Ger’alin demanded, desperation in his eyes. “The Burning Blade,” Callie sobbed. “They attacked the reserve group and grabbed her! After they got her, they ran off, heading back south. We’ve got to rescue her!” “We do,” Ger’alin agreed as he turned to shout orders. Zerith gripped the fighter’s arm in a vise-like grip, his fingers digging painfully into Ger’alin’s flesh. As much as Zerith wanted to rush after her with Ger’alin, he knew that plan would just get all of them killed. The Blood Knight struggled to wrest free of Zerith’s grip but the priest bore down relentlessly. “If we just run down there without a plan,” the priest said, his eyes haunted, “we’re going to get her killed and ourselves too. We make for Sun Rock Retreat to plan the rescue, Ger’alin. I’m not risking getting my sister killed just to be doing something!” he stated 133


firmly, seeing the reckless fire in the other man’s eyes. “Think it through, Ger’alin. Normally you’d be saying exactly what I am now.” Ger’alin turned away, staring down the road for a moment. “Fine,” he muttered. “Let’s go ‘plan her rescue’ while we leave her in captivity,” he spat. “To Sun Rock Retreat!” he shouted as he mounted his charger and galloped off north. The rest of the Disorder of Azeroth galloped after Ger’alin, leaving Zerith, Callie, and Dar’ja alone for a moment. “You can’t be serious,” Callie said desperately. “We can’t afford to go sit in Stonetalon while you plan a rescue! Let’s just ride down there and get her!” “Callie, stop,” Zerith said, choking back tears. “Do you know why they would have taken her?” The undead woman shook her head. “Do you know where they would be holding her?” Again, Callie answered in the negative. “I don’t want to leave her in their clutches a moment longer than I have to,” he said, trying not to shake, “but if we just run down there, none of us will last the rest of the day. Now, go on. Follow Ger’alin and see if you can keep him out of trouble for a while. I’ll be along shortly.” The rogue nodded blankly. Zerith stood where he was until she turned and headed back to rejoin the others. Ger’alin led them north, turning to glare daggers at the priest before he galloped out of sight. Zerith waited until he was certain he was alone and then sank down in the road and wept. He had finally regained a sister…was he about to lose her so soon? ~*~*~*~ “So you finally decided to join us,” Ger’alin muttered as Zerith rode into Sun Rock Retreat. Zerith glared at him but managed to keep from replying in like kind. Seeing that he was not going to get an argument, Ger’alin growled and turned away, storming over to the inn. Zerith followed him, pausing only to study the crowd gathering outside the wooden building. “You, you, you, and you,” Zerith said calmly, pointing to the four closest people. “Head to the wyvern roost. I want you,” he said, pointing to the first of them, an orc dressed in wolf pelts, “to go back to Desolace and speak with the leader of the Gelkis clan. See if they’ll assist us in rescuing one of our comrades from the Burning Blade. You,” he said to the tauren standing next to the orc, “do the same for the Magram clan. You there,” he pointed to a Forsaken warrior, “are to go to Shadowprey and find out what they know about the Burning Blade’s hide outs in Desolace. I want the three of you to return as soon as you can with news.” “And what about me?” the fourth asked, turning around. “Is there anything I can do other than waste time?” she spat angrily. “You are to go to Silvermoon. Drag back that bastard Jez’ral. I want to know why in the Nether the Burning Blade would kidnap Alayne and I suspect that that son of a bitch has the answer. Do whatever you have to in order to convince him that coming here is in his best interests,” Zerith said icily. “I’ll be at the inn, trying to piece together a plan until you return.” ~*~*~*~ “The Gelkis are amendable,” the orc reported late that night. “It seems that the Burning Blade has been encroaching on their territory and they’d like the chance to kill some of them.” “That’s good,” Zerith said, “And the Magram?” “They’re not interested in doing anything other than taking over the Kolkar’s lands and killing the Gelkis. If we’re willing to help them there, they’ll help us,” the tauren responded. 134


“Then we’ll ally with the Gelkis. Go get some rest. I’ll have orders for you to carry to them tomorrow morning.” Zerith leaned over the papers scattered about the table, focusing on what he’d learned from his scouts. The Burning Blade had two bases of operations in Desolace: Thunder Axe Fortress to the north and Mannoroc Coven to the south. All indications pointed to Alayne being held in the ruins to the south. Zerith sighed and rubbed his burning eyes as the maps blurred together. The Forsaken he’d sent to find out about the areas had reported rumors that the ruins actually disguised some kind of underground lair. Only rumors, though. The Burning Blade probably made short work of anyone who could confirm the existence of their lair. “Here, I brought you something to eat.” Zerith looked up to see Ger’alin standing over him holding a plate of food and a mug of tea. “Thank you, Ger’alin,” Zerith said politely, “but I’m not hungry.” “No problem,” the fighter answered, setting the food down at the end of the table. “I couldn’t eat either,” he said glumly. “Have you got anything planned?” “Not really,” Zerith sighed. “I need to know more about where they’re holding her.” “I might be able to supply that deficiency,” came an answer from the door way. “Or rather, he will,” Callie growled as she shoved Jez’ral into the inn and slammed the door behind her. “Good evening to you,” the warlock began smoothly. “I came as soon as I heard what happened. Others are on their way as well. We can’t let one of our own be held prisoner by the Burning Blade, after all,” he smiled though the expression did not touch his eyes. “Sit down and shut up unless you’re going to tell me just why the Burning Blade would be interested in Alayne,” Zerith said, his voice like cold steel. Jez’ral raised an eyebrow at his impertinence. “I don’t give a damn what you are used to or how you want to be addressed. Ever since Alayne went off with you, she’s been a completely different person. Either you tell me why, or I’ll let Ger’alin here cut you into little pieces as a warning to the next man who’d mess with my sister!” “I look forward to the exercise,” Ger’alin said, baring his teeth in what might have been a smile. Loosening his sword in its scabbard, his tone became almost jolly, “I haven’t killed anyone in hours.” “I am getting a little hungry,” Callie rasped from her spot by the door. “And he looks delicious,” she smacked her lips. Jez’ral blanched, wondering if they were serious or not. “I suggest you tell me everything you know about this cult, why they would want Alayne, and where they might be holding her. We have all night to discuss the matter,” Zerith said coldly. “I see,” Jez’ral muttered, his face taking on a green tint. “I don’t know where, exactly, they’ll be holding her. Hand me some parchment and a quill and I’ll draw you a map of their underground lair. That’s usually where they take prisoners and spies to torture them before they execute them.” Zerith’s face went white and sweat began to bead on his forehead. “Why would they want Alayne?” Ger’alin asked faintly, his face a twin to Zerith’s. “Because she stole a book back from them,” Jez’ral muttered as he sketched the layout of the lair. “Keep in mind this information may be out of date. The new leader killed all of the spies we had infiltrated into their cult. We still haven’t found out exactly what happened to Veryl, their last leader,” he said as he passed the map over to the priest. “You mean to tell me that she’s been captured and may be tortured and killed over a Nether-spawned book?” Ger’alin shouted hoarsely as he leapt from his seat and drew his sword. “Well, not just any book,” Jez’ral said smoothly. “A very special book. She went to a lot of trouble to steal it from them as part of her trials. At least, she came back looking like 135


she’d been run through the wringer,” he continued calmly, masking his feelings behind an expression of disinterest. “She’s really something else, though. Completed her trials in a single night and faced down a felhunter and an infernal on top of it all. We’re very proud of all she’s accomplished. That’s why we’ll be coming along with you to rescue her.” “No, you will not,” Zerith said calmly, the pieces of the puzzle falling into place. What must she have endured at the hands of those cultists to get this blasted book that Jez’ral was nattering on about? “You are going back to Silvermoon right now before I forget that Alayne respects you and kill you myself. Get out of here!” the priest shouted. “You make my skin crawl!” “I don’t answer to you, boy,” Jez’ral sneered as he stood up. “And neither do those who are following me. Just stay out of our way when we go to rescue my student. If you do that, I might let you live.” “Let him go, Ger’alin,” Zerith muttered as the fighter moved to block the warlock’s exit. Once the man was gone, Zerith collapsed back down into his seat. “Everyone, get a few hours’ sleep. We’ll be returning to Shadowprey tomorrow morning to work out terms with the Gelkis and to rescue my sister.” ~*~*~*~ Zerith sat, fidgeting impatiently and trying not to cough from the pipe smoke. The leaders of the Gelkis clan sat around the fire, puffing contentedly and discussing strikes and raids they’d been in and making plans for future raids against the Magram clan. “We are honored to be brothers with warriors such as you,” Ger’alin said as he exhaled smoke. Zerith had suggested that the fighter do most of the talking when it came to bragging about their raids. “But now, let us discuss the battle with the Burning Blade.” “In time, brother,” the eldest, a wise old centaur named Uthek said. “First we will feast and cement our bonds of brotherhood. Then, we will battle and trample our enemies under hoof.” Zerith knew his face must look as strained as Ger’alin’s. That was the same answer they’d gotten every time they tried to steer the talk towards planning Alayne’s rescue. Zerith could hear Ger’alin gritting his teeth in frustration. To the Gelkis, this was just another raid. “Honored elders,” Zerith began, taking the pipe from his mouth and then nearly dropping it when the bowl burned his fingers. “We look forward to feasting with you, but first, we must rescue my sister. She is being held prisoner. The Burning Blade took her in a raid.” “Your trouble stirs our hearts,” Uthek said as he puffed on his pipe. “But, to raid with new allies without a feast of brotherhood is unlucky. Until you’ve been introduced to our clan’s totem spirits, fighting alongside you is unlucky. We would lack their blessing.Besides, it is only one night she is away from your tents. She will come to no harm,” he said reasonably. Zerith and Ger’alin gaped at each other. Did the centaurs have any idea just what the Burning Blade would do to prisoners? From the impassive faces of the centaurs around them, the answer was obvious. They were not used to fighting enemies who were vile and given to torture, or worse. Their common opponents were other centaurs; creatures of primitive honor like themselves. Zerith sighed in frustration, wondering how he could communicate the danger that Alayne was in without offending his new allies. Fortunately, Ger’alin took the issue out of his hands. “She’s my woman and I want her back in my tent,” he said flatly. He ignored the outraged look on Zerith’s face. If it would prod the centaurs into action, he’d say whatever he

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needed to say. “I’ll be going after her this evening with our without you. She’ll not spend another night away from her clan.” From the shocked looks on the centaurs’ faces, not to mention the way Zerith looked as if he were about to choke to death, Ger’alin thought he may have gone too far. After a moment, Uthek sighed and nodded. “You won’t go alone,” Uthek said. Waving his arm towards a young centaur warrior, he ordered, “Take the pipes away. We have a raid to plan. Don’t worry, young brother. We will get your woman back to your tent before your sheets have time to grow cold.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne shuddered, pushing herself up on arms that shook. Her back burned like a wildfire and her legs trembled. For the first hour, she’d worried that she would betray her friends and tell the cult everything. After the second, endless hour of torture, she had indeed babbled out everything she knew. Anything to make the pain stop. Bitter tears of shame trickled past her nose as she recalled just how eager she’d been to everything she could think of. The words had gushed out of her like a river that she’d hoped would wash away the whips and the brands they’d held. Forcing herself to her knees, she lifted her hands to her face and tried to claw her eyes out. The physical pain she could bear and recover from. The pain of betraying her friends; of discovering just how weak she was, the pain of failing to protect them and endangering them because of her own weakness…she would never recover from that. She wished that she’d let the murdered man kill her so she would never have had to face this torment. Desperately, she tried to scratch away the memory of what she had done; of what had been done to her. There now, don’t do worse than they have already. “I want to die. I wish they would kill me.” Maybe they will. Maybe we’re both going to die here. “It’s what we deserve. Light, please don’t let Zerith risk himself in a rescue attempt.” Alayne sank back down onto the cold, stone floor. She even closed her eyes and let her breathing become deep and even. She forced herself to keep her eyes closed even though she could see the looks of disgust and hatred her friends would give her when they found out she had betrayed them. Alayne turned, her back facing her fellow captives, so that they wouldn’t see her weep. “They’ll hate me.” They already do. “I know. They’ll hate me even more. No one will ever forgive me for what I’ve done.” “There are those who would understand. You must find them. Seek them out. They will care for you. They will understand the path you walk.” Who are they? Alayne whispered desperately to the strange, new voice that had offered comfort. Who could understand what she had done and still offer her comfort? The question ran over and over in her mind as she tried to reach the speaker. She choked back sobs, trying to steel herself against the pain she felt whenever she moved. Behind her, she could hear the other prisoners whispering, praying, and begging for the forgiveness that she knew none of them would ever receive. Who are you?she demanded of the distant voice. She sighed bitterly, tears of anguish falling from her closed eyes, when silence was the only response. ~*~*~*~

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“Hey, it got them to plan the raid, didn’t it?” Ger’alin said defensively. Zerith had not said a word during the rest of the exchange with the centaurs but the glares he had given the Blood Knight spoke loudly enough on their own. The priest did not like it when anyone even seemed to think that Alayne was less worthy of respect than another woman simply because she’d lived among humans and worked in a tavern to pay the bills. “Look, it was just something to get them moving. I didn’t mean anything by it. I don’t think that she is like that at all. I know that she isn’t and that she would gut any man who laid a hand on her without her permission.” “She is going to hit the roof when she finds out what you told them,” Zerith muttered. “And I’m not going to stop her from killing you for this one.” “I only said what I had to say to get them to actually do something other than sit around and feast and drink to brotherhood,” the fighter growled. “Or would you rather she remain in the warm and welcoming hands of the cultists another night just to protect her good name?” “I understand why you did what you did, Ger’alin. I’m just warning you that Alayne will not see it the same way. She can be very peculiar when it comes to that kind of talk. I have a feeling that she’s terrified someone will think that she’s little more than a tavern wench instead of seeing that she’s someone who had to work in a tavern. You should get Dar’ja to tell you what Alayne said to her about what she was planning for me.” “Overuse pronouns, much?” Callie asked, drawing her horse up along Zerith’s other side. “And what did Ger’alin do that is going to have Alayne up in arms?” “Oh no, he’s not telling you,” Ger’alin said. “You’ll run off and tell her first thing. You’d probably convince the cultists to let you pass just so you could tell her!” “Never mind, Callie,” Zerith said politely. “Are the others in position?” “Yes. That’s what I came to tell you. Uthek says that he’ll signal the attack as soon as it’s full dark. That would be in about an hour, I guess,” she said, looking at the sky. “Will the archers be able to see in the dark?” “Yes, Ger’alin, they will be able to,” she muttered. “I’m just as anxious as you are to get Alayne out of the cultist’s clutches. I saw her face. I know what she’s terrified might happen to her. But,” the rogue sighed,“we should stick to the plan you developed. It is a good one. Rather different than how we normally do things, though.” “We have to assume they’ll know everything about us and what we’ve done already. We can’t know what she’s told them or what she’s held back…or even if she’s still alive,” he sighed sadly. Next to him, Ger’alin began growling, his eyes blazing with anger. “You should probably get back into position,” Zerith muttered. “Wait for Uthek’s signal.” “Oh,” she said as she turned to leave, “before I forget. Jez’ral and that Strahad said something about them taking care of the library and the leader’s chambers. I guess we should let them do that?” “They can burn in the Nether for all I care, damned wizards and their Light-bedamned books,” Ger’alin growled angrily. “Yes, Callie. Let them do whatever they want. We’re here for Alayne,” Zerith said, his tone implying the “thank you for putting up with Ger’alin” that the Forsaken seemed to need right then. With a sigh, he schooled himself to patience, speaking only to calm Ger’alin while waiting for Uthek’s signal. ~*~*~*~ Alayne groaned, then whimpered when she heard her joints pop and crack as she moved, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt as much. Pain washed over her in waves. In her failing vision, she could see her other self floating before her eyes. Reaching out, she 138


tried to draw on her strange self’s strength. Bitter tears leaked from the corners of her eyes when she realized that the woman had no more strength than she. “I will surrender to you if you’ll help me,” she whispered to her own wavering face. “Just give me the strength to fight back once; to fight back enough to force them to kill me.” “You will not die here, Alayne.” “Who are you?” she gasped. She could see her other self nodding as if responding to an order Alayne had not heard. Her ghostly mirror vanished, leaving her alone. For a moment, Alayne felt an intense despair. Then, she felt a welcome surge of rage begin to well in her heart. She smiled in the darkness. She was not going to die here. ~*~*~*~ “Let’s go!” Ger’alin shouted as soon as he saw the signal they’d been watching for. Elves, orcs, trolls, tauren, and centaur poured from the hills above the coven, crashing down upon the warlocks like a flood. Off to a corner, he could see Jez’ral and the human with him making their way to the area they said was the library. “Wizards and their books,” he muttered as his sword flashed through the air, cutting open the orc warlock in front of him. Onwards, he fought, cutting a path through the violence with his blade. He could hear Zerith behind him, calling on the Light to smite the cultists and heal his friends. “We found it!” he heard Callie call from across the ruined building. “This way,” she gestured. Ger’alin followed her to a ramp leading down to what looked like a pile of rubble. “Look at it closely,” she said. “It could fool a dwarf.” Ger’alin examined the pile carefully. After a moment, he realized it was a very cleverly painted door. Lifting his foot, he summoned all the rage he possessed and kicked it off its frame. “Good job!” Zerith shouted as he ducked into the hallway. Callie and Ger’alin followed on his heels, punching, shoving, and slashing their way down the twisting paths. Up ahead, they heard a man’s agonized shouts. Callie and Zerith rushed towards the source of the sounds while Ger’alin pressed deeper into the lair. He laughed with malicious delight whenever one of the cultists fell to his blade. They would pay for kidnapping Alayne. ~*~*~*~ Alayne shivered, her teeth chattering as her body shook. The temperature in the room had begun to plummet in the past few minutes. Letting the rage burn through her, she shoved herself up on her hands and knees and tried to summon the strength to stand. Wobbling unsteadily on her feet, she lurched towards the door, determined to tear it down and fight through the Burning Blade until she was free…or dead. She roared with rage as she took a wobbling step. The door seemed so far away. Placing each foot carefully, she crossed the room. She reached the door and placed her hands upon it. Summoning all of the power she could muster, she pushed against the wooden door. It gave way in an explosion of splinters. The backlash of the spell singed her skin and hair but she did not feel it. She took a careful step into the hallway… …and spiraled down into utter darkness as the world gave way beneath her. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin fought onward. He’d long since lost sight and sound of his comrades. He had lost himself in the twisting passages of the underground labyrinth. Only the groans of the few warlocks who had tried to remain hidden during the fight could be heard this far beneath the ground. He rounded a corner, his footfalls echoing ahead of him. Two warlocks emerged 139


from one of the rooms just as he stepped in front of the doorway. They had only a second to blink in surprised confusion before he had both of them on the floor, the orc’s blood pumping out as quickly as her heart beat. The undead he tore apart, knowing from his time in Undercity that only burning the corpse would keep it from reanimating after a few hours. He then ducked into the room they’d headed out of, surprised to find it a dead end. Turning on his heel to leave, he heard a woman’s roar from beneath the room followed by a tremendous explosion. Keeping to his feet, he glanced around for the cause of the sudden tremor in the room. “Ah ha!” he exclaimed, seeing the trapdoor hidden beneath the table. Shoving the table aside, he opened the door and leapt down, sword at the ready. Alayne lay sprawled on the floor in a heap. The broken remnants of the cell door dotted the hallway. “Light no!” he shouted, dropping his sword and shield on the ground and fell to kneel beside the fallen woman. Rolling Alayne on her back, he pressed his fingers against her neck, shuddering with relief to find her pulse beating faintly. She burned to the touch with some fever and the whole cell stank of infection and rot. He tried to clear his mind and reach out as his instructors had taught, tried to wrest the healing powers that came from the Light into his hands. For long moments, he tried desperately to purge the poison coursing through the Alayne’s veins. With a strangled grunt of anger, he set her back on the ground gently, and rose to his feet. Choking back the tears of self-hatred he felt rising at his failure and ineptitude, he turned and ran from the cell. “Zerith!” he called out as he raced back up through the keep. “Dar’ja? Somebody come quickly!” ~*~*~*~ “Ah, Rel’in,” Jez’ral was saying as he saw the man that the Disorder of Azeroth had taken captive. “I thought you might be part of this insanity.” “Jez’ral,” the elf said calmly. “I’m not surprised to see you as part of this rabble.” “Where’s Alayne?” Zerith demanded. “Oh, is that the wench’s name?” Rel’in asked, affecting surprise. “I can’t be bothered to learn the names of all the fools we execute.” “You’d better be lying,” Callie warned, hefting her daggers. “Oh, he is,” Jez’ral said pleasantly. “He’d never kill a captive until they were too weak to survive the torment he extracts from them. That’s his weakness. Though I’m surprised he would run as sloppy an operation as he does. Rel’in, old man,” Jez’ral said amiably, as if talking with an old friend instead of a traitor to his people, “I’m surprised you let my student get through to steal back the Tome.” “That was Veryl, not me,” the elf spat. “Ah. So that explains why she returned to me with her robes ripped open. Veryl never could stand to let a woman pass by without interference. I’m sure, however, that he’ll come to regret laying a hand on my student. If Alayne couldn’t teach him manners, I’ll relish that lesson.” “I’ll kill him!” Zerith swore, looking around for the subject of discussion. “She beat you to that,” Rel’in said calmly. “She cut him to ribbons in the library. Veryl never did stop to think that someday, a wench might actually back up her ‘no’ with a little action.” “That’s my sister you’re talking about, you filth!” Zerith shouted, advancing on the captive man, enraged beyond reasoning. Jez’ral grabbed the priest before he could tear Rel’in apart with his bare hands.

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“Stop it, Rel’in,” Jez’ral sighed. “You won’t get an easy death at this young man’s hands. Zerith,” he said to the priest, “leave. Go see if you can find the prison cells. That’s more likely than not where Alayne will be.” For a moment, it seemed as if the priest would ignore the warlock. Then Ger’alin stumbled into the room. “Zerith,” he gasped, “quick. Found her,” he said as he sucked air into his starving lungs. “Hurt bad. Afraid to move her.Needs your help.” Without another look at the traitor elf, Zerith followed Ger’alin further into the lair at a run. ~*~*~*~ Zerith gasped in horror as he examined the women’s injuries. Ger’alin hovered over him, pacing and cursing at himself. Reaching out to the Light, Zerith made a futile attempt to heal Alayne. He sighed when the effort was not enough. His sister’s injuries were beyond his ability to repair alone. Trying again to would be like trying to reach for the moon by standing on his toes. Every gasp or moan she let escape from her throat when he moved her cut through him like a knife. He wished he could risk waking Alayne, risk letting her know she was safe, that her tormenters were dead. “She’d just pass right back out from the pain,” he whispered to himself. Alayne was a mass of cuts, bruises, and burns. He could feel the heat of infection just by holding his hand over some of the worst of them. If the prison cell hadn’t stunk of illness and putrefaction before now, the stench of the woman’s untreated wounds would have made the air loathsome on its own. “Zerith?” he heard Dar’ja call out from the door way. “They said you needed assistance. I came as quickly as I could.” He nodded and pointed for her to sit on the other side of Alayne. Closing his eyes, he felt Dar’ja reaching for the source of her divine powers while he opened himself to the Light. At a signal that he couldn’t explain but knew instinctively, he melded their energies together and directed them into the woman’s body. Alayne gasped and then settled back to the floor, her breathing coming more easily. Only faint bruises and scars remained, marking her fair skin, as signs of her torture. Examining her again, he smiled sadly at Alayne. The wounds to her body were gone, soon only scars remained. The wounds to her mind spirit would take much longer to heal. With a sigh, Zerith let Dar’ja help him up. He opened the door and was almost knocked over by Ger’alin. “She’s still asleep,” Zerith said in response to the question in the fighter’s eyes. “She’ll need to rest.” “I know, I know,” Ger’alin muttered, unable to keep delight out of his voice. “But she doesn’t have to stay here, does she?” “No, I suppose not,” Zerith said tiredly. “You can take her to your tent.” Ger’alin flushed in embarrassment but said nothing as he carried Alayne out of the dank cell. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin smiled, at least, it was an attempt at a smile, as yet another person clapped him on the shoulder and offered congratulations. Zerith must have related the entire incident to Callie for it to have spread all over the gathering so quickly. “I am going to strangle her,” he muttered to himself, or words to that effect. “Strangle who?” the intended target asked. Ger’alin gave a start; he had not heard anyone creep up behind him. 141


“You,” he snarled. “Are you trying to get me killed?” “What are you so upset about?” Callie blinked. “Whatever it was, I didn’t do it. I’ve been too busy,” she said, fighting a smile, “too busy looking after your woman!” she cackled. “How is Alayne doing?” Ger’alin asked pointedly, trying to ignore the teasing. “She’s still asleep,” Callie said, her demeanor changing instantly. “Zerith thinks she may sleep another day or so. If we hadn’t killed most of them, I’d be all for going and massacring those blasted cultists until…until…until they were dead!” she finished lamely, her anger preventing her from making her normal smart-aleck rejoinder. “I can agree with you there,” Ger’alin muttered, unconsciously gripping the hilt of his sword. “You should be glad you didn’t see what she looked like before Zerith and Dar’ja got there.” “I am. It’s bad enough just watching her sleep now. You can call me a liar, but two days ago, I’d have prayed for her to sleep peacefully. Now I wish she’d twitch or move or mumble just once. It’s un-natural,” Callie shuddered. “If I couldn’t see her chest rising and falling, I’d think she was dead, she’s so still. Zerith says it’s just exhaustion but…” “I understand,” Ger’alin whispered. “The Magram are sitting quiet,” he said, changing the subject. “So that’s where you went. Dar’ja said she figured you were scouting out one of the other clans. She said you probably needed to get away from all the well-wishers for a few hours.” Ger’alin winced. “I’m glad she’s still asleep. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about those ‘well-wishers’ ever since the first of them offered their congratulations. Oh no, don’t try that wide-eyed innocent look with me, Callie. That trick won’t work this time.” “I had nothing to do with this one, Ger’alin. I swear.” “I have a hard time believing you considering that you’ve managed to tell every last person what someone else remarked about them when it amused you. But this time, it’s gone a little too far. I’ve not had a moment’s peace since we got back from Mannoroc Coven!” “I swear I said nothing to no one. The only person I’ve mentioned it to was you.” “Sure.” “She’s telling the truth,” Zerith said. Both sin’dorei and Forsaken started. So intent they had been on their arguing that they had not heard the priest approach. “Is she awake yet?” “How is she?” “She’s still asleep. And she’ll be fine,” Zerith sighed. “It’s just exhaustion.” “Are you sure?” Callie asked. “I can hardly stand to go in there.” “It is just exhaustion,” the priest repeated. “After seeing what they did to her, I’m not surprised at all by how long it’s taking her to wake up. Light, I probably wouldn’t want to wake up either after being treated like that,” he shuddered. “Don’t dwell on it, Zerith,” Ger’alin advised. “We’ve already brought her tormentors to justice.” “I know,” he sighed. “But, at any rate, Callie’s not the one who spread news of your marital status all over the camp. You can thank the centaurs for that. And no, Ger’alin, you can’t go and bash our new allies over the head so don’t even ask. I’m sure that if you’ll just wait and explain it to her rationally, she’ll understand and be flattered. Or, she won’t and you’ll be speaking in a slightly higher register for a while.” “She’ll understand,” Callie nodded. “If I’d been in your place, I’d have done the same thing.” “And it gives you something else to harass me over,” Ger’alin laughed without mirth. “I’m going to go find something to eat and try to avoid ever speaking to anyone ever again. Me and my big mouth.” 142


“Why is he letting it bother him so much?” Zerith wondered aloud after Ger’alin had stalked off. “I mean, yeah, sure, Alayne’s old-fashioned. She doesn’t even like me being in her room when I’m looking after her and she calls me her brother. Still, she didn’t flip out that night he passed out on the floor of her room so… What?” he asked, seeing the disgusted look on Callie’s face. “I refuse to believe that you are as dimwitted as you’re pretending to be,” the Forsaken muttered, turning on her heel and following Ger’alin. “Is everyone trying to drive me crazy?” Zerith called out after her. “Because, if so, you’re succeeding admirably! I wish someone would let me in on this joke,” he muttered. “What joke?” Dar’ja asked as she walked up to him. “I don’t know,” he sighed, hating the whine in his voice. Stumping over to her, he leaned his head down against her shoulder in tired defeat. He smiled when he felt her arms circle his waist and heard her murmur something vaguely comforting. “Forget about them,” he muttered into her hair. “Let’s get something to eat before I have to go check in on Alayne again.” ~*~*~*~ “They’ll never forgive me,” Alayne whispered to the stranger. She sat in a cold, dark room, much like the cell that housed her. “I betrayed them because I was weak and scared and they’ll never forgive me.” In the strange manner of dreams, she felt comfortable confessing to the strange man standing, swathed in shadows, in front of her. “I forgive you,” he rasped. “I know you do,” she said, surprised that she did know. “But, do you understand…” “Understand about the battle you face to control your temper? Understand the shame you felt when you pleaded with your captors to let you tell them all about the disposition of the forces in the Ghostlands?” the stranger asked, amused. “Of course I understand, Alayne. I’ve betrayed and been betrayed in turn.” “I don’t think I can bear it,” Alayne continued as if she had not heard. “I don’t think I’ll be able to bear the looks of disgust and scorn that they’ll give me when I must tell them about what I did. They’ll hate me, then. Instead of caring for me, Zerith will push me away. I’ll be all alone again. Just like after Mother died.” “You’ll never be alone. Come to me and I can reunite you with your true friends and family,” the stranger offered. “Already, I have calmed the battle within you. There is much I can do to help you grow strong, little one.” He could sense the woman hesitating, wavering in her decision. All that held her from him was her devotion to her brother. The stranger had not yet uncovered a way to cut that tie though he had several likely plans in motion. He disliked being forced to move so quickly and openly. With a sigh that sounded like the icy wind of death itself, the stranger changed his tactic. “You should rest,” he cooed soothingly, careful to keep distaste out of his tone. “Rest and dream of one who will always love you, no matter what choices you make.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne sat, facing the corner of her room, shivering and sobbing. Her mother had shoved her into her room ages ago, ordering her to sit in the corner and think about what she’d done. It wasn’t fair, the little girl thought to herself. It wasn’t as if she’d meant to break that jar. She’d just wanted to look at the pretty sparkles it was making. She hadn’t meant to disobey her mother. She was just so curious about the pretty things in the store that she couldn’t stop her hands from reaching out to try to grab them. 143


Outside, she could hear her mother and father talking. Then she heard the stairs creak and the door to her room open. Turning, she began sobbing anew when she saw her father’s stern face. “Alayne, come here,” he said firmly, sitting on her bed. Alayne wiped the tears from her eyes and hiccoughed as she dragged her feet, walking slowly across the room until she stood in front of her father. She heard him sigh and then say, “Alayne, look up at me.” She lifted her face and stared up at him, unable to stop her crying. “Your mother told me what happened at the arcanist’s shop today, Alayne. You know better than to touch anything unless your mother or I say you may.” “Yes, Papa,” she sobbed. “Until you can learn to obey your mother and me, you won’t be allowed to go out shopping with us. You’ll have to stay with an adult when we have to run errands until you can show us that you are an obedient little girl. Do you understand?” “Yes, Papa,” she sobbed again. She flinched when he reached out for her and saw his expression change from one of sternness to one of concern. She felt her heart flutter when he lifted her up and set her in his lap, rocking her while she cried. “There, there,” he said softly. “Stop crying. It’s okay now.” “I c-can’t!” she wailed, burying her face in her father’s chest and shuddering. “What’s the matter, Alayne? I just told you what your punishment was. There’s no need to keep carrying on like this.” “I was ‘fraid,” she managed to croak out. “I thought you and Mama would hate me for being so bad.” “Oh now,” he said, holding her up to his face and smiling, “there’s nothing in this world that you could do so bad that would make Mama and I hate you. I love you, Alayne, and I always will.” Alayne stared at her father’s smiling face, seeing the love shining from his bright blue eyes. The warmth of his care melted away the rest of her fear and she smiled, wrapping her arms around his neck and tangling them in his long, reddish brown hair while he rocked her until she fell asleep, safe and secure in her father’s loving arms. ~*~*~*~ Alayne woke up and blinked. She was laying atop a pile of furs, a quilt thrown over her. Her tattered and filthy robes had been replaced with a clean linen nightgown and, as she tested her legs, she noticed she had been healed. Lifting her hands to her face, she could no longer feel the swelling or the soreness that had she had grown accustomed to in the last days. Her fingers encountered the wetness of tears as they traced her cheeks and she smiled, letting the bittersweet warmth of nostalgia drift over her as she remembered the dream. Her joy was short-lived, though, as she pulled herself out of the bed and began to examine her surroundings. A pile of her clothes lay heaped in one corner and, with a shudder, she lifted the remains of what she had been wearing when she was captured. “I don’t think there’s a seamstress in the universe that could repair this,” she muttered. “I wish there was one who could repair my memories,” she said as she threw the rags down and wiped her hands on her nightgown. “Where in the nine hells am I?” she asked aloud. “Ah, you’re awake!” a booming feminine voice shouted from the opening of the tent. “Just stay there, lass. Your mate was worried about you. I’ll go fetch him now.” “Thank you!” Alayne called out to her mysterious benefactress. “Wait, my what?” ~*~*~*~

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Ger’alin tore another bit of meat off the haunch he held, telling himself it was deer, and swallowed without tasting it. The sun was setting and a chill was spreading across the desert, making him grateful to sit close to the fire, telling himself that it was the heat of the flame that was bringing color to his face and not the remarks of the centaurs he’d chosen to sup with. Thinking that they would leave him in peace had been his first mistake, he mused as he tore another bite off and chewed angrily. Maybe, if he could figure out a way without offending his new “brothers,” he could introduce them to a concept called “the quiet game” that his mother had loved for him to play when he was a child. He tried to smile and nod happily as the centaurs continued to offer their rather frank, and, considering the differences in physiology, impossible -- not to mention inappropriate -advice on how best to celebrate his “mate’s” return. Waving them off, he said something about needing some more wine and stalked off. Seeing Dar’ja, Zerith, and Callie sitting by themselves, he headed in their direction. The good-natured ribbing of his friends was preferable to the more ribald lessons their allies had been giving him. He was halfway to his friends when he heard hooves galloping in his direction. Turning, he saw one of the centaur women who’d been helping to tend to Alayne. The horsewoman wore a broad grin as she halted in front of the elven man. “Your woman’s awake,” the female centaur laughed. “Climb aboard; she’s eager to see you.” “Me and my big mouth!” Ger’alin groaned. ~*~*~*~ Alayne paced the width of the tent, her heart pounding in fear. Had the centaurs rescued her from the Burning Blade and then given her to one of their own as some kind of sick prize? She’d heard stories of women taken in raids from the humans as she was growing up and the notion had always disgusted her. She froze when she heard hooves approaching her tent. Looking around for a weapon, she steeled herself to fight off whatever barbaric horse-man thought he would ravish her. Her hand gripped a spear stuck in the ground in the corner of the tent and, with a strength borne of desperation, she managed to free it from the dirt. Her heart lurched in her throat when she saw Ger’alin duck into the tent and she dropped the spear in relief. “You will not believe what they told me,” she said, her voice shaky with relief. “It’s good to see you up and about,” Ger’alin said, looking everywhere except at Alayne. “But maybe you should go back to sleep for a while?” he suggested lamely. “Oh no,” she laughed. “I’m starving. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. Where are Zerith and Callie? Are they still angry with me?” “You’re hungry?” Ger’alin asked. “I’ll just go get you something to eat, then. I’m sure Zerith and the others will want to see you as well. I’ll just go get them too while I’m at it,” he said, lifting the tent flap as he prepared to go out. “Wait a minute,” Alayne said. “Where are we? What happened? The last thing I remember is trying to get to the door,” she explained, “and thinking that I was going to die in there…” she trailed off, shuddering in distaste at the memory, “The next thing I remember is waking up here and some centaur lady saying – and this will make you laugh – that she was going to fetch my mate!” Alayne gasped, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. “I thought I was about to meet a four-legged suitor when you ducked in here!” Ger’alin gave a guilty start. “We’re in the Gelkis village, just west of Mannoroc Coven,” he said, trying to divert her away from any dangerous topic. “You’ve been here for about two days now, asleep. We allied with the Gelkis to rescue you. You were pretty bad 145


off,” he said, his eyes darkening as he recalled the sight. “Between us and the Gelkis, we killed or captured every last one of those Light-be-damned cultists. Did any of them…” Ger’alin trailed off, anger choking him. Alayne stared at the man as if she had never seen him before. “Did any of them hurt you, Alayne?” Ger’alin managed to croak out, sounding strangled. The woman stared at him dumbly. “If that any one of those scumbags so much as touched you, I swear by the Pantheon, I’ll…!” “Oh, Light no,” Alayne gasped, understanding dawning. “Some of them wanted to, I suppose, but their leader wouldn’t so much as let them touch me without him being there. He preferred to torture me himself. He seemed to enjoy it,” she shuddered, “Are you okay, Ger’alin? Do you want me to get you some water or something?” she asked, recoiling at the look of implacable hatred on her friend’s face. “I’m fine,” the fighter said, a slow smile washing away the strange look he’d bore. “I couldn’t be better,” he laughed. “That’s a relief,” Alayne said, sitting back down on the furs that constituted her bed. “How are the others? Zerith and Callie? And Dar’ja, too,” she added. “Why didn’t they come with you?” “They’re fine. Zerith and Callie have been hovering over you the whole time. I think they only left to go find something to eat. Speaking of that, you said you were hungry,” he said, turning to leave again. He opened the tent flap to find a pair of centaur matrons standing in front of him carrying plates of food. “Oh no,” he whispered. “Hungry, lass?” one of the centaur ladies laughed. “Well, you can hardly celebrate with your mate on an empty stomach!” Ger’alin grabbed the plate from the horse-lady and let the tent flap drop. He turned around, to see Alayne staring at him, her hands on her hips, one knee bent, foot tapping and eyes glittering dangerously. “That’s really a funny story,” he said, forcing a laugh. “You see I told them that you were my woman so that they would go…Alayne, what are you doing? Put down that spear!” ~*~*~*~ “Was that Ger’alin that just rode off on the back of a centaur?” Callie asked, staring off behind Zerith. “Do I look like I have eyes in the back of my head?” the priest asked, smiling at his friend. “If you’re finished eating, we should probably go check on Alayne. See if you can find some stew or something in case she’s woken up.” Callie hurried off, while Zerith swallowed the last of his meal. The Forsaken woman returned a few minutes later with a large bowl of steaming stew and a loaf of bread. The pair stood up and began walking towards the tent where the elven woman lay sleeping. Dar’ja spotted them and hurried over, giving Zerith a kiss on the cheek in welcome and whispering that she wanted to check on Alayne as well. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Zerith laughed when he saw a crowd of centaur women gathering around Alayne’s tent. He could see the tent flap moving and tell that the horse-women were speaking to someone inside. Then, the horse-women backed away in surprise as Ger’alin sprinted out of the tent, running for his life with Alayne following after him, her night gown hiked to her knees with one hand while she waved a spear in the other. “Ger’alin!” she screamed as she chased the man, “I can’t believe you told them I was your woman! What in the name of the Light possessed you? Get back here so I can stab you with this spear! Your woman, indeed! Why did Zerith let you live? Oh, no you don’t! Get out of that tree!” 146


“Is this a normal mating custom of your people?” one of the centaurs asked the three gawkers. Three pairs of eyes turned on the questioner. Zerith, Callie, and Dar’ja stared at the centaur for a moment before all three burst into laughter. Zerith managed to convince the horse-women that this was, indeed, some time-honored tradition of his people while Dar’ja and Callie gasped for air, laughing about the newly-invented ancient sin’dorei mating ritual called ‘the tree-run.’ ~*~*~*~ “So, she didn’t kill you after all,” Zerith said, stifling a laugh. Ger’alin was walking back into the camp, carrying a sleeping Alayne in his arms. “No, she didn’t,” the fighter said tightly. “The spear is still up the tree somewhere; I couldn’t find it in the dark. Then the little minx fell asleep waiting for me to climb down so she could kill me. I suppose it’s all over the camp by now,” he muttered. “It is. There may be a few people in Winterspring who didn’t hear her screaming at you, if that’s any relief.” “Oddly enough, it is.” “Want me to carry her back to her tent?” Zerith offered. “Thank you, but no. We came to an…agreement of sorts,” he muttered sullenly. “I think she’s been spending fartoo much time with Dar’ja.” “I’ll be around shortly to sit with her so you can get some rest.” “Again, thank you, but no,” Ger’alin said firmly. “I told you we came to an agreement. Part of it is that I’m to stand guard for her until everyone forgets about this whole incident,” he muttered. “It was either that or wear one of her dresses in the middle of the camp and sing some sappy love song,” he said in response to the shocked expression on Zerith’s face. “Go on. Get some sleep. I’ll take care of your sister as if she were my own.” Watching the priest walk off, glancing occasionally over his shoulder and shaking his head, Ger’alin waited until he was out of sight before continuing on with his task. Alayne had extracted several promises from him before she finally let him climb down and sit with her until she fell asleep. She’d found the entire situation hilarious –once she’d calmed down, of course. After she’d finished laughing about it, they had talked about all manner of things from magic to history, the constellations and even cooking until Alayne nodded off. Kicking aside the tent flap and ducking in, Ger’alin set her down and tucked her in, thankful that she was asleep and couldn’t see the tenderness in his eyes. “You know,” he whispered to her sleeping face, “I would have agreed to watch over you, regardless.” ~*~*~*~ Dar’ja watched as Alayne went through another set of stances. Her blade work had improved by leaps and bounds over the past few weeks. The warlock was also becoming more adept at fighting with daggers and bare hands. Dar’ja sighed, wishing she could believe that the improvement was due to her own teaching. She admitted, reluctantly, that it was probably down to the amount of time Alayne spent with Ger’alin. “I can’t believe you’re still letting him sleep in the same tent after the fit you threw when you first woke up,” Dar’ja muttered. Alayne stared at her quizzically as if wondering what she was talking about. “Oh, that,” the warlock shrugged dismissively. “Well, it’s either put up with his snoring and complaining about having to sleep on the ground or tell our new allies that they were tricked into that rescue. I doubt the Warchief would be pleased to learn that we had managed to make an alliance and then promptly lost it.” 147


“Still, the way you nearly had a conniption just because of what he said…” “Well, if everyone wants to think I’m the sort of woman who hops into bed with a man I barely know, then that’s their problem. Not mine. Speaking of that,” Alayne said, dropping her stance and sheathing the sword, “I never did get the details from you on how your evening with Zerith and my dress went. I want that dress back, by the way.” “It…didn’t go as I expected,” the Blood Knight muttered. “He did like the dress…or me wearing it – he wasn’t too clear which – but he didn’t do anything other than comment on it and tell me that he wasn’t going to react.” “Hm,” Alayne sighed as she crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her chin pensively. “We’ll have to try something else, then. Maybe if we got him drunk.” “Alayne…” Dar’ja growled. “Very drunk.” “Alayne, it’s not going to happen. He’s not like that.” “I seem to remember someone telling me all men were like that,” Alayne grinned wolfishly. “Don’t worry, I’m sure we can trip him up somehow.” “I don’t want to trip him up!” Dar’ja shouted. “I like how he is. I like how our relationship is. I don’t want to speed things up or change anything about it just yet.” “Still, it’s not a half-bad idea.” “You’re right. It’s not a ‘half-bad’ idea. It’s a completely-bad idea. Drop it.” “If you’re sure about that…” “I am.” Alayne unbelted the sword, set it on the ground, and began moving through a series of warm-ups Dar’ja remembered Ger’alin using when he was preparing to demonstrate unarmed combat maneuvers. “Why the sudden change?” Dar’ja asked, thinking about the sudden switch from spells to swords. “I just think it’d be a good idea for you two to quit tiptoeing around and get on with it. You both seem happy. Why wait?” “No, I meant…never mind,” Dar’ja sighed. “Seriously, life is too short and too uncertain. You two should go back to Silvermoon, get married – if that’s what’s holding him up – and get to work on repopulating the city. I’m sure you heard the same lectures and speeches the rest of us did,” Alayne muttered, flushing slightly at the last part. “You’re nearly old enough for your first fertile period, aren’t you?” “Another five years for me, at least. I’m only twenty-four. And, honestly, I’m nowhere near ready to…” “Zerith will be an excellent father. And I wouldn’t mind being an auntie.” “I’m not ready for that yet, Alayne. And seriously, why are you so fixated on this?” “Like I said…” “You…are the oddest person I’ve ever met. Including Ger’alin.” “Thank you.” “That wasn’t a compliment.” “Thank you nonetheless. Honestly, Dar’ja, do you want to spend the rest of your life out in the wilds like this? Never knowing if the next battle will be the one that tears you apart forever? Would you be content to sit behind the walls of Silvermoon, never knowing if he was coming back to you this time? Never having anything of his to keep part of him with you forever?” “Alayne, that’s not the…” “It is the point,” the warlock argued, stopping her exercises. “You should take Zerith back home and keep him there. He’s too valuable to keep risking himself like this.” “And where would we be if you and Zerith hadn’t risked yourselves?” “That’s beside the point.” 148


“No, it’s not. Now, while I appreciate your thoughts on this matter, my relationship is between me and Zerith and I’d really rather you stayed out of it.” “Fine then,” Alayne muttered. “I’m going to go for a run down the canyon.” The warlock jogged off before Dar’ja could remember that she’d been wanting to know why Alayne was suddenly so interested in melee combat instead of her magic. Deciding that it was pointless to try to continue talking to the other woman right now, Dar’ja headed back to Shadowprey Village. Zerith would be there going over the maps that Ger’alin had made of the Maurdine’s twisting territory. ~*~*~*~ Zerith smiled and nodded as Dar’ja entered the inn. She gave him a tight-lipped smile and then headed over to join him. Spread out on the table in front of him were various maps and notes from Ger’alin concerning the disposition of the Maurdine and their patrol routes. Zerith stacked them neatly and set them to one side as Dar’ja joined him at the table. He had ordered his lunch just moments ago and could use a break from his work. “Still working the forms with Alayne?” he asked when Dar’ja settled in next to him. She sat in silence for a moment while the cook brought out the sandwiches he’d asked for and a pitcher of steaming tea. Deciding to let her speak in her own time, he dug in to his food. He’d skipped breakfast that morning to go observe a new fighting style that Tau’re and Davril were working on and was ravenous. “Ger’alin says she’s actually getting pretty good at that style of combat. He was wondering if she could do that and cast spells at the same time. I told him I’d heard of battle mages but I wasn’t sure what style of fighting they trained for. Still, perhaps it’s worth exploring especially since Tau’re and Davril have…” “Alayne wants us to get married and have children,” Dar’ja said flatly, staring dully into space. A sudden crash brought her nearly to her feet. Zerith was staring at her with a blank expression. His hands were still curled as if holding a mug. He did not seem aware of the ceramic fragments or tea staining his robes. “You have my attention,” he said calmly. “Alayne wants what?” “She was just saying we should stop waiting around and get it over with.” “Is this some kind of joke?” “No. She was serious. I told her that neither of us was remotely ready for any such thing but she seems to have developed an obsession with it. This is the fourth time she’s mentioned it to me.” “I think I need to have a talk with her. Excuse me,” he said politely. “She’s gone for a jog. You may have to wait a while.” “Then I will have a chat with Ger’alin. The way those two have had their heads together lately, it’s pretty likely he has a pretty good idea of what’s going through her mind.” Zerith stood up, brushed his robes off, and then walked out of the inn. Glancing through the town, he noted that Ger’alin was not there. Grunting to himself, he took the road out of town and towards the Gelkis’s settlement. He found the Blood Knight just outside of Shadowprey Village sitting beneath the very tree Alayne had run him up. Studying Ger’alin, he noticed that the man had his eyes closed and a look of intense concentration on his face. Zerith approached him quietly. The dark-haired fighter seemed to be practicing an exercise that was set for most novice priests just learning to wield holy magic. “Sorry to interrupt you,” Zerith said calmly, “but I’d like to know just what in the name of the Dark Titan is going through Alayne’s head lately.” “What?” Ger’alin replied, opening his eyes. He sighed when he saw Zerith glaring down at him. “Honestly, I have no clue. She’s been…skittish ever since we rescued her. I know she’s been trying to convince Dar’ja to take another stab at seducing you,” the Blood 149


Knight admitted, his face flaming scarlet at the thought. “She’s even cornered me and asked me what exactly elven men find attractive in women. Trust me, I’ve had far too many conversations on that topic with her. She’s set on what she wants and what she wants is for you and Dar’ja – or rather, just you – to be back in Silvermoon. I think, in all honesty, she wants everyone back home. I think…I think her captivity has unsettled her and she’s overreacting because she doesn’t want anyone she cares about to ever be in that situation.” “Understandable but…” “She’s not rational.” “Elaborate.” “Zerith, I think she’s ill. She barely sleeps and when she does, her rest is filled with nightmares that have her tossing and turning, moaning and pleading. Her mind never gets a chance to rest.” “I see.” “No, you don’t. You’re not the one sharing a tent with her every night.” “I’m not. Why are you still doing that, by the way? And don’t feed me that line about not wanting to anger the Gelkis by admitting you lied to them.” “Because she trusts me and she’s not scared to be vulnerable around me,” he admitted. “And, she needs someone to watch over her. I’m willing to do it. I care about her like you do. But, she can’t seem to wrap her mind around the concept that she wouldn’t be “taking time away from Dar’ja” by asking you to watch over her and she’s terrified that if she admits to being afraid, you’ll send her away. She said something about it being too late to come clean or some nonsense.” “That’s it,” Zerith said, spitting the words out between clenched teeth. “I want to talk to her myself.” “She’ll probably be in our tent laying down,” Ger’alin offered. “She stopped by a few minutes ago saying her head hurt too much to continue her run. I was just going to go check on her and see if she wanted any lunch.” The two men walked over to the large tent near the border between centaur and Horde territory. Ger’alin stepped inside and then let loose a sharp shout of pain as he slammed into the ground. “Ten points for a perfectly executed body slam,” the fighter muttered, “but minus twenty for timing. Zerith wants to talk to you.” Zerith stepped into the tent, surprised to see Alayne rising from a crouch. She nodded to him and plastered a smile on her face. “Been planning the next battle?” she asked. “I have,” he replied. “But, I want to talk to you about what you said to Dar’ja.” “I didn’t say anything to her…” “You want us to get married and have children and neither of us is even fifty years old yet.” “Well, you’d both be happier if…” “Isn’t that between she and I?” “All right, all right,” Alayne muttered. “I’ll drop the subject.” “No.” “You don’t want me to drop it?” she asked, confused. “No, I want to know what’s going on with you,” he said with forced calm. “I know you’re not sleeping well. I know you’ve been acting strange ever since you were captured. Actually, since before that. You’ve been acting oddly since Stromgarde. You run hot and cold and I can hardly keep up with you.” “Nothing is going on with me,” she protested. “Alayne,” Ger’alin sighed, pushing himself up onto his seat, “enough.” Alayne chewed her lower lip and then helped the Blood Knight to his feet. They shared a look and then Ger’alin sighed and walked out of the tent. Alayne sighed and walked 150


over to the raised sleeping platform. More than large enough for two people, the sleeping platform was covered with thick furs. It looked inviting in a primitive way. Still, Zerith wondered how anyone could sleep comfortably on something so lumpy. Alayne patted the area next to her and motioned for him to join her. He strode over and sat down. Despite how lumpy it looked, it was quite comfortable. “I’m tired of being afraid,” she sighed. “I want to stop being afraid and start being brave.” “Alayne, everyone’s afraid at some point or another.” “No, just listen. I’ve been terrified for you, scared of myself, and finally frightened to death that one day it will be you who gets caught instead of me. I just…I just want everyone to be safe. The only way I can think of to make that happen is for all of you to go back to Silvermoon…” “And would you come with us?” “No,” she admitted. “I’d stay out here and do whatever needed to be done.” “While I sat back in Silvermoon and worried about you?” “You’d have Dar’ja to keep you occupied…” “She can hardly make me stop thinking about my sister. Now, why don’t you tell me about what’s happened that has you so afraid? Maybe I can help put it in perspective for you.” Alayne opened and closed her mouth several times. She seemed on the verge of telling him. However, before she could croak out a single word, she began sobbing and weeping wildly. Zerith wrapped his arms around her and let her cry herself out on his chest, praying that one day soon she would be able to talk about it. At least she had made the first admittance of a problem. That was a hopeful sign. ~*~*~*~ “Would you like me to bring you something back, Alayne?” Ger’alin asked as he finished polishing his sword and shield. Zerith had left several minutes ago and the Blood Knight had decided to go see how his tent-mate was faring. Alayne was laying down, a compress over her eyes, complaining of a headache from crying herself out on Zerith’s shoulder. She’d confided the entire conversation to Ger’alin who had listened intently, letting her relive the moments, passing no judgment and offering nothing but silent commiseration. “No, thanks. I’ll probably be asleep by the time you get back anyway.” “Fair enough. Zerith and I will be planning the last raid tomorrow. Do you want to take part in it or would you rather stay back here again? I’ve noticed that you’ve been having trouble concentrating enough to cast your spells when we drill. Actually, I’ve noticed that you’re having trouble concentrating, period,” he said pointedly. “And I’ve noticed that you seem to be spending all of your free time sitting under a tree and staring at the ground like a novice mage just learning to sense arcane currents,” Alayne muttered defensively. Ger’alin jumped and turned to stare at her in amazement. He hadn’t realized that anyone had noticed his attempts to teach himself what his instructors amongst the Blood Knights had failed to drum into him. “Oh no,” he said flatly, “let’s not divert the issue. Do you need more time to recover or do you feel stifled sitting on the side-lines? Don’t worry about convincing Zerith either way; I’ll take care of that for you.” “I just want everyone to go home,” she sighed. “I know that, Alayne. You’ve told me that before. I know that you are scared half to death right now.” He tossed the rag he’d been using on the ground and sat down on the bed at her feet. Twisting around, he lay on his stomach and studied what little of her face was not 151


hidden by the compress. “I remember how long it took my partner back in Theramore to get back on his feet after he’d been held captive by the ogres – and they just put him in a cage for a day. They didn’t beat him black and blue like you were. But, you can’t hide away forever, Alayne. The world is a big place; sometimes a dangerous place. Zerith is no safer in Silvermoon than he is out here. Less, probably, if some of the goings-on I saw are tolerated as much as I suspect.” “Don’t talk treason, Ger’alin.” “Don’t try to mother me, Alayne,” he said lightly, tugging fondly on the lock of hair that covered half her face. “So, will you go or will you stay?” “I’ll go,” she muttered. Ger’alin stood up and headed out. “Oh, and Ger’alin?” she called out, halting him. He turned to see her lifting the compress from her forehead and propping herself up on one elbow. “That rag goes over in the pile of things to be washed; not in the middle of the floor. I don’t care what you told the centaurs; I’m not picking up behind you all the time. I’m your friend; not your woman,” she teased. ~*~*~*~ “She’ll be coming along in the next one,” he whispered into Zerith’s ear. “And don’t stick her off in the reserves.” “She’s ready go get back into the thick of things already?” Zerith said, his brow furrowing in surprise. “She is,” Ger’alin replied. “Then in the thick of things she shall be,” the priest said as he studied his plans again. “Look,” the fighter sighed. “I know that she still hasn’t opened up to you about what’s really bothering her. Now, maybe you take that crying jag as a good sign but I’m thinking that perhaps we’ve both been wrong about how to get her to open up. I’ve discussed it with her often enough lately to realize that she’s got to work out what’s wrong on her own. I know you and Callie had been pressing her to try to open up but that seems to be the wrong tactic with Alayne. Something in her mind is not letting her confide in us. She needs to be left alone, I think, to work it out.” “Considering you rarely leave her side lately, I guess you would know best.” “Don’t snap my nose off,” Ger’alin muttered. “I’ve not laid a hand on her.” “I’m just teasing you,” Zerith laughed. “I know that you’re doing what you’re doing because you’re trying to help take care of her. I appreciate it.” “Good. Just don’t let Callie or Dar’ja start playing match-maker with us. Alayne actually has been getting a little frightened that someone might start pairing us together.” “Don’t worry about that. Still, you’re the only other man I know of who can follow the paths her mind takes. Maybe…but, no. I don’t think she’s interested in anyone like that.” After a long pause, Zerith sighed and stretched out, tucking his hands behind his head and staring up at the cloudless blue sky. “Maybe she’s right, though.” “What?” “Maybe she’s right. Maybe we shouldn’t be out here. Maybe, we never should have left Silvermoon.” “You’re joking. If we’d stayed cooped up in Silvermoon, safe and sound, who would have killed Dar’khan? Or driven Arugal out? Or brought the Arathi Highlands to the Horde? Or any of the other things you two have led us to do? What honor, what glory would there have been staying in Silvermoon?” “Alayne never would have lost control of herself in Stromgarde if we hadn’t been there,” Zerith pointed out. “I never would have been shot; she wouldn’t have been taken

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captive by the Burning Blade. I imagine we’d all be much happier if we’d stayed where we belonged.” “And the Horde would still be looking at every single sin’dorei cross-eyed if you two hadn’t proven our worth to Thrall.” “I think you forget that Alayne and I were never warriors like you, Ger’alin. Alayne, at least, shouldn’t be out here anymore.” “So you’ll pack her off to Silvermoon? You think that’s the answer?” “I don’t know what the answer is anymore.” Ger’alin sighed and dug a pebble out of the ground. Flinging it into the distance, he sat, lost in thought for a while. Zerith closed his eyes against the glare of the sun and halfdozed, still tired from the day’s fighting. “What if we went back just for a visit?” Zerith opened one eye and looked up at his friend. “Maybe that’s just what we all need right now; to finish this task and then take a break. I know I should return to the Blood Knights; there’s many things I need to learn. That’s one lesson I’ve got by heart after all this journeying,” Ger’alin muttered. “And, it would probably calm Alayne down a bit to have us all somewhere safe for a while. It’d give her a chance to come to grips with whatever’s bothering her and,” he laughed, “it’d give you a chance to court Dar’ja in a more relaxed setting.” “Maybe that is what we need,” Zerith sighed. “We’ll make this battle a good one and then take a vacation until we’re all more settled.” ~*~*~*~ Alayne stood nervously waiting for the signal to strike. She’d been going over her spells in her mind, murmuring them beneath her breath to make certain she had the incantations correct. Ger’alin had been right that she’d had trouble casting her spells lately. The closer she let herself get to opening up, the more the other her, the one in the back of her head flogged her, telling her she couldn’t place all her troubles on her friends shoulders. Alayne had been fighting a non-stop internal war with herself for weeks and she was just about spent. She would try to confide in one of her friends, only to have the other her clamp her mouth shut, screaming at her for being weak, for failing to protect the others. The other one was driving her mad with her constant nagging, dredging up of her nightmares, and her contradictions. Alayne never knew, from one moment to the next, if the voice she heard would be cruel or kind. “I’ve got to stop thinking about that and focus on the moment,” she muttered. A faint “yes, you do,” whispered in her ear. Muting it, she concentrated. Below her, she could see the Gelkis and Ger’alin’s group galloping up the slope, whooping and hollering, drawing the main body of the Maurdine down upon them. That was her signal. Lifting a hand, she jerked her arm forward, signaling for her group to jump from their hiding places on high and hurry into range. “I am with you, young one,” she heard a man whisper in her ear. “Fight well.” Her nervousness left her, lifting away like a mist, and she felt the thrill of magic tingle through her blood as she began casting her spells. The voice that had lurked in the back of her head was held off, leaving her free to be as she was meant to be. She laughed as she skipped down the hill, leaping lightly off of rocks, skidding to a stop near the surging mass of Maurdine fighting to free themselves from the enemies encircling them. She lifted her hands and streaks of dark flame shot from them, engulfing the centaur, distracting them with its searing pain while the fighters, led by Ger’alin, chopped them down. On the other side of the fray, she could see Callie leaping from a Gelkis’s back to straddle a Maurdine centaur while she reached around before the creature could turn its half-human body and slit its throat. 153


Alayne could see the heated joy of combat in her friend’s eyes and knew it was reflected in her own. Back and back their surrounding cluster pushed the Maurdine, opening only to allow other centaurs to fall into the encircling trap. Once the entire group enclosed within the deadly surround was down, the fighters split apart, wheeling and flanking, to surround the next group. Further up the pass, other groups penned and held the rest of the Maurdine, some forming their own deadly enclosures where the terrain and numbers favored them. Zerith stood in the midst of the fighting, watching each group battle on and directing the healers with him where their energies were needed the most. He paused to give Alayne a tight-lipped but happy smile, overjoyed to see her more herself than she had been in weeks. The battle stretched on, the Gelkis and their Horde allies pushing the Maurdine back. In vain, a pair of young centaur warriors tried to make for the enormous war-horn set at the top of a treacherous climb. Both were brought down quickly, frozen in place by the mages under Davril’s command and finished off by the fighters with Tau’re. By the time the sun set, the only remnants of the Maurdine clan were those who had hidden themselves deep within the mountain cave that gave them their name: Maraudon. “Should we go flush them out?” Ger’alin asked after the fighting had ended. He was kneeling on the ground, trying to catch his breath, holding himself up with his sword. His shield was battered from the centaurs’ desperate blows and his shield arm still rang from them. Alayne sat next to him, just as winded, wiping blood from a gash on his forehead. He had waved off offers of healing, saying he just needed to catch his breath but more than content to let Alayne worry over him. “Leave them,” Uthek said, snorting. “Let them hide in their dank caves. We will take their land and ensure that they never forget their cowardice in running from an honorable fight.” “Then we are done here,” Zerith said, letting his legs fold beneath him. There had been few serious injuries, but he’d still had his hands full. “Tomorrow, we will go back to Silvermoon to rest awhile,” he announced. Alayne laughed in delight. “So, you’ve decided to listen to me for once! When shall I start baking the cake for the wedding?” Zerith picked up a handful of loose pebbles and tossed them at her. “Oh, you are to be mated?” one of the Gelkis centaurs asked. “We must celebrate that tonight along with our victory over the Maurdine!” “What? NO!” Zerith shouted, but it was too late. He glared at Alayne and Ger’alin who were both roaring with laughter. The centaurs were wasting no time in spreading the word and the other members of the Disorder of Azeroth were shaking off their fatigue to offer congratulations and best wishes. “Now you get to see what it’s like!” Ger’alin barked as he wiped tears from his eyes. ~*~*~*~ “I’m not certain that a marriage made under duress counts as legally valid. And, it was under duress considering the number of spears that were pointed at us and the fact that neither of us wanted to be responsible for ruining our newly-forged alliance with the centaur,” Zerith muttered for the hundredth time when Callie asked him, yet again, how he was enjoying married life. “Still, I’m going to beat her with a stick when we get off this zeppelin.” “Oh, come on, it was all in good fun,” Callie laughed. “Everyone will take it as seriously as you and Dar’ja take it. Except for us,” she amended. “We’ll tease you about it for the rest of your lives. Anyhow, if you want revenge on Alayne, just go down and talk to her 154


about food. You’ll get to watch her go green around the gills and she’ll probably break all of the bones in Ger’alin’s hand again. Go on, you’ll feel better if you do.” “Is she still throwing up? At least we’re over the ocean now. I pity anyone who had the misfortune to be beneath our flight path when we were over land.” “Yes, she is. Dar’ja’s down there tormenting her. I think Ger’alin might get mad at your dear, sweet, loving wife in a few minutes and chuck her off the back of the zeppelin if you don’t go down there and put an end to it.” “Gah!” Zerith choked. “I’d forgotten completely about that!” he said as he ran down the stairs, nearly tripping himself on the hem of his robes. “Dar’ja said she’d…” “Hello, Zerith,” Ger’alin said carefully when he heard the clamber and turned to see the priest descending. “Think you could get your missus to back off a little before your sister spits up her shoes?” “I’m not nearly done with her,” Dar’ja muttered angrily. “It will be a sunny spring day in Northrend before I’m done with her.” “It’s not entirely her fault, Dar’ja! How was either of us to know that the Gelkis would just up and actually marry you two like that? Does either of us look like we’re experts in centaur customs? Besides, considering that none of us are old enough to be classed as adults, certainly there’s some way to have it considered legally invalid! Some way that does not involve making Alayne pass out from dehydration!” “I’m sorry,” Alayne gagged as she tried to stand up straight. She and Ger’alin were standing on the outer balcony of the zeppelin where she had been hunched over the railing. She turned to face Dar’ja and to apologize for the thousandth time. “Oh, it’s quite all right, Alayne,” Dar’ja cooed, her voice larded with honey. “We’ll just go out to the Well of the Sun and have a nice big feast to celebrate the occasion. I guess we should have tender, juicy, rare roast just oozing with sauce since it was such a primitive…” she trailed off as the other woman paled again and bent over the rail. Ger’alin struggled between holding Alayne steady and going over to strangle Dar’ja. “Dar’ja, stop it,” Zerith said calmly. “Oh, that’s right, take your sister’s part!” “Ger’alin, is she finished?” the priest asked, ignoring Dar’ja. The fighter looked over the rail and, paling himself, nodded, swallowing hard as if he might be sick in a minute himself. “Good. Carry her up and tell Callie to keep her trap shut for five minutes, would you?” Not waiting to see if Alayne could steady herself, Ger’alin reached down, lifted her gently to his shoulder, and hurried out before she could be sick again. A yelp followed by a string of curses attested to his failure to accomplish that. Smiling to himself, Zerith shook his head and turned to face Dar’ja. The woman sat with her back against the bulkhead, her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms hanging over them with her head down. Her face was flushed, either with anger or embarrassment. Letting her stew for a moment, Zerith adopted the most stern pose he could, recalling all the times he’d gotten in trouble with his father for teasing his little sisters. “Are you calm, now?” he asked, careful to keep his voice perfectly neutral. “No,” Dar’ja muttered sullenly. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ‘calm’ again. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life – including when Ger’alin knocked me out in front of Lady Liadrin and all the other Blood Knights! I don’t think I’ll ever get over this one. This was a joke too far. Married? Not that I object to that,” she added hastily, “I would just have preferred to wait another few decades and then get to set the date and conditions of my own wedding instead of making some hasty vows while surrounded by a herd of spear-wielding half-horses!” “You’d better learn to live with what happened,” he continued in the same tone. “You can’t go all of your life blaming someone else for your problems.” He took a deep breath to 155


steady himself when she glared up at him, hurt and anger in her eyes. “First, you blamed Ger’alin for the bad start you made with him. Then you tried to blame me for the way you acted towards me. Now, you’re trying to blame Alayne for something you know you and I could have put a stop to ourselves. Yes, I know, she started it by making that joke about us getting married. Still, at least they asked you if you wanted to accept me as your mate. You could have said “no” right then and put a stop to the whole business without causing offense to our allies. Yes, it would have been awkward but everyone would have understood why you’d said that.” Dar’ja muttered something beneath her breath. Allowing a little of the anger he was feeling into his voice, he continued, “Why didn’t you?” She muttered again. “Speak up, woman!” he growled. “Because I didn’t want to say ‘no!’” she shouted. Zerith blinked, taken aback and warmed by her statement. He wished she’d look up at him right then instead of staring at her knees. “Well, then,” he said lightly and dryly, “you can’t go blaming it all on Alayne and making her sick with guilt over the matter. She meant it as a joke, Dar’ja. Not as something intended to get us married by the Gelkis. You can’t blame it all on her.” Dar’ja did look up at him then and smiled tremulously, seeing the warmth and affection replacing the sternness in his face. “No, I suppose I can’t,” she whispered. Leaning her head back against the bulkhead, she sighed, “I suppose I should go up now and apologize to her. I had her puking for at least a good half hour.” “You could do that,” Zerith agreed happily, “or, you could stay down here with me and help me figure out howwe are going to get back at her for this whole mess.” “Ooh! I just love a man who likes a good prank war!” she laughed. “And I love you, too,” he said, more seriously. Kissing her lightly on the forehead, he changed the subject, “So, do you have any ideas on what to do? After all,” he added, “we are a team now.” ~*~*~*~ “Where’d Ger’alin and Alayne go?” Zerith asked as he and Dar’ja stepped off the zeppelin. Callie stood waiting for them on the landing, her face guardedly blank and not making any jokes. “Oh, Ger’alin decided to just carry her on down the tower instead of letting her go at her normal snail’s pace. He muttered something about finding a lake as he passed. Whether it was for him to wash off in or to drown her in, I don’t know. He told me to take Lucky on to the stables. I’m just waiting for them to unload the mounts now. Are you feeling better?” she asked cautiously. “We’re fine,” Dar’ja said with a grin, wrapping an arm around Zerith. “We’d better go find those two before one of them kills the other.” “That sounds like a good idea,” the Forsaken agreed quickly. “You two go on. I’ll take care of the animals.” “Where’s the nearest lake?” “Just head south until you hear Thalassian cursing. That will, more likely than not, be Ger’alin.” Zerith shrugged and laughed, putting an arm around Dar’ja’s shoulders as they walked down the tower and skirted the ruins of Undercity’s upper levels. Near the border with SilverpineForest, they found Ger’alin wading in the lake in his armor, scrubbing the backs of his calves and dumping water out of his boots. Once he was satisfied that he was fairly clean, he waded out of the water and sat next to a very pale, very tired-looking Alayne.

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Zerith motioned for Dar’ja to be quiet while the pair of them sneaked up close enough to hear what the paladin and the warlock were saying. “…the Light, try to hold it in next time,” Ger’alin was growling “Then don’t toss me over your shoulder on my stomach, Ger’alin,” Alayne said in response. “It’s kind of hard not to throw up in that position.” “I wouldn’t know,” the fighter muttered, leaning back on his elbows and casting a glance at his friend. “I’ve not been picked up and tossed over someone’s shoulder since I was about yea high,” he said, lifting a hand about three feet off the ground. “I can see where it would be difficult to pick you up,” Alayne muttered. “If I ever feel like breaking my back, I’ll let you know so I can give it a try.” Dar’ja stifled a laugh at the mental image that brought up and glanced over to see Zerith doing the same. “So, do you want to go back and find the others or would you rather lie out here all night being miserable?” Ger’alin was asking. “I’ll take the second option,” Alayne sighed. “Dar’ja hates me. I suppose that means that Zerith will have to hate me now.” “Where do you come up with this stuff, woman? Okay, I’ll grant you that Dar’ja does probably hate you right now. She will probably make your life a living hell for a while. She does that to everyone, except Zerith, for some reason.” “She loves Zerith, moron.” “I gathered as much when she said she’d take him as her mate,” Ger’alin muttered dryly. “Give me some credit, would you? Now, just because she’s mad at you, it does not stand to reason that he would be.” “Yes it does.” “No, it does not.” “Yes it does.” “No it does not, Alayne.” “Yes it does.” “Light help me, we are going to be out here all night. No. It. Does. Not.” “Can we just go back to Silvermoon? I figure I can sneak into Murder Row and hide out there until things blow over. Jez’ral will hide me and if he doesn’t, Mir’el would.” “No, we can’t just do that. Come on,” Ger’alin said, standing up and pulling Alayne to her feet. “At the very least, you need to eat something to replace everything you threw up courtesy of the lovely Dar’ja.” “I’m comfortable here,” she whined as she let herself be pulled to her feet. “It’s just you and me out here. I don’t have to worry about…” “About what?” Ger’alin asked. “About a lot of things,” she said, putting a hand to her forehead. “Look, I’ve learned not to press you, but what things?” “About what Zerith will think...” she started, suddenly closing her mouth so quickly that Ger'alin could hear her teeth click together as her jaws slammed shut. “Think about...?” he prodded. “I...I'm sorry,” she muttered, "I just can't talk about it. He's got to hate me, now. Look at all the trouble I’ve caused…” Ger'alin sighed but let it drop. "Why is it that you can talk to me just enough to make me really start to worry about you, but you can't even tell Zerith or Callie why you can't talk to them?" “You’re different,” she said dismissively. “Zerith is…well, he’s so…nice and sweet.” “And I’m not?” Ger’alin asked in mock offense.

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“You’re asking me this? The woman you got into a drinking contest with? Maybe we should go have another of those,” she suggested, trying to change the subject. “Oh no,” he begged off, “waking up on the floor of your room and thinking I’d dishonored you once was enough for me, my dear.” Laughing, he put an arm around her shoulders to steer her towards the road and strode off, keeping his pace to hers. “However, if we could keep the bounds of the competition to something other than ‘drink until we both pass out,’ I might be willing to be convinced.” Dar’ja and Zerith waited until the other two were well out of range before coming out of their hiding places. Both wore stricken expressions, staring off the way the other two had gone. “Oh, I went way too far, didn’t I?” Dar’ja asked rhetorically. “I suppose you didn’t help matters, but she’s had this crazy idea that I’m going to hate her for a while now. I don’t know where she got it from, but I’m going to find out. One way or another.” “Let’s go catch up to them. Maybe if I apologize, she’ll feel better and won’t think you’re mad at her for my sake.” “Maybe. But why would she think that to begin with?” ~*~*~*~ “There you are,” Callie said as she ducked into the Blue Moon tavern. The four sin’dorei were seated around a large, circular table, cups of wine sitting untouched in front of them. Ger’alin and Alayne both stared at their wineglasses as if both were wishing for something substantially stronger. At least Alayne no longer appeared nauseous. “What took you so long?” Zerith asked. “We’ve been waiting for you so I could make a toast,” he said, shoving a glass of wine at the Forsaken. “I had to stable the animals over in Brill. There wasn’t enough room here. Before I forget, here are the claim tickets for them so you can pick them up whenever you want.” “Thank you,” Dar’ja murmured as she pocketed her and Zerith’s tickets. “Now, Zerith, your toast?” “Oh, yes, thanks for reminding me,” he laughed. Standing up on his chair, he tapped a fork against his wine glass until the entire tavern was looking at him. Alayne, Ger’alin, and Callie glanced at each other, wondering what was about to come. Dar’ja just sat smirking, holding her glass in her hand. “Um, thank you for your attention,” the priest started lamely. Everyone in the tavern muttered, wondering what the mad elf was doing. “I’d just like to take a moment to raise a toast to my dearest friends. Ger’alin, Callie: thank you for all of your muttered comments appraising the state of my relationship with Dar’ja. I know you thought we couldn’t hear them, but we could. Alayne, my dearest little sister, thank you for opening your big mouth and getting us married over in Desolace.” The three mentioned buried their faces in their hands in humiliation. Alayne’s face went pale as if she were about to be sick again and Ger’alin shifted to make certain he was out of the line of fire. “I’m not finished!” Zerith called out over the rising din of the tavern. “I’d also like to toast my dear wife, Dar’ja. It may not have happened the way either of us thought it would, but we may as well enjoy what we have. Alayne, Ger’alin, thank you both so much. Dar’ja, shall we drink to our long and happy marriage?” he suggested as he emptied his cup and sat back down. “Um, guys. I was being serious, you know,” he said to his table mates. “Really, thanks.” Ger’alin lifted his head and stared at the pair, seeing the sincerity in their eyes. With a laugh, he clapped Alayne on the back while Callie cheered. “That was so sweet,” he confided, “that I think Alayne’s going to throw up!”

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Chapter Seven: Madness and Death

A

layne sighed as she tossed and turned. She could see the early morning sunlight beginning to trickle through her window. Zerith and Dar’ja must have dropped off hours ago; she could no longer hear them. Ger’alin had stayed in the room with her and Callie long enough for the first sounds of passion to start before turning crimson and running from the room, muttering a hasty excuse about needing some air. After the fourth hour, Callie had left as well, saying that while she didn’t need sleep, she didn’t need to hear that either. Sometime just before the darkness before dawn, Alayne had dressed, telling herself that if they kept it up much longer, she would go find Ger’alin and bed down in his tent just to get some sleep. That was about the time they had wound down, earning themselves a round of applause from the weary – or envious – patrons in the inn. Since then, Alayne had lain in bed, on top of the covers, tossing and turning. “I wish I could go without sleep like Callie does,” the woman muttered irritably as she covered her face with the pillow to block out the light. “Oh, Light, not again!” she growled, hearing familiar noises from the room next to hers. Flinging the pillow across the room, she stood up, shoved her feet into her shoes, threw her cloak around her shoulders, and stormed out of the inn. “At least they won’t want to go anywhere, today,” she said to herself. “Not if they only got a few hours of sleep,” she said, feeling her cheeks heat. “I hope I never make that big a fool out of myself. At least she makes him happy.” She makes him very happy. “That she does,” Alayne giggled. “Not that I would ever want to make him happy like that. Maybe now they’ll go back to Silvermoon and stay there. Then I won’t have to worry about him so much.” Perhaps they will. You won’t feel alone, will you? “With you in my head constantly? No, Tal’ar’s daughter, I will not feel alone.” It is good that we are not fighting each other, little Alayne. “Indeed. You can be…almost nice sometimes. You remind me of Papa. Why do you fight me so much?” You are too much like Mother sometimes. Caught up in your magics and your mysteries, never seeing what’s in front of you. If I let you, you would hurt everyone instead of being strong; as strong as they need you to be. You must never let them know, Alayne. It would hurt them. You don’t want to be weak, like Mother was; always pouring her troubles on me, always weeping and never letting me go search for Papa…I hated her, those times. “Since we’re not going to fight, let’s not discuss Mother,” Alayne laughed to her inner voice. “She drove me absolutely crazy. ‘Alayne, proper elf maids do not throw rocks at humans, even if it is a game.’ ‘Alayne, little elf girls do not go swimming with human boys.’ ‘Alayne, you will not go out riding with your friends, without a chaperon, until you are in your thirties!’ ‘Alayne, young ladies do not get in fistfights!’ ‘Alayne, you will quit that job at the tavern immediately and find a more suitable line of work. Why if your father…’” I know. I was there. Mother never could understand me. I wanted to learn to be strong and protect others, like Papa did. “I enjoyed my arcane studies, though. It was fun to cast spells. She and I got along well when we were working on that.” 159


Yes, but then the Sunwell… “I remember. I was there.” “Gone without sleep so long you’re talking to yourself?” Callie asked, trying to mask her concern. She’d seen Alayne walk out of Undercity in a daze, a fragile smile on the sin’dorei woman’s face, and had followed her. The warlock had walked out of the city, seemingly unaware of where she was going. Before Callie spoke, Alayne had been about to walk right past the Bulwark and into the Plaguelands. “Everyone talks to themselves sometimes,” Alayne muttered sullenly. “I see. Quite an interesting conversation to be having with yourself,” Callie murmured dryly. “Almost as if you were talking to another person.” “Oh, leave me be,” Alayne muttered sharply. “I got no sleep at all; Zerith and Dar’ja kept the entire inn awake! Maybe I’m just tired and that’s why I sound crazy.” “Where were you heading, anyway?” “Just walking,” she said, looking around in surprise. “I didn’t intend to come here.” “Good thing I caught up with you, then. Come on, let’s go back.” The two women walked back in companionable silence. Alayne would yawn and rub her eyes every few minutes, muttering to herself about wanting to get some sleep. Callie said nothing, figuring that once Ger’alin woke up, he’d let the warlock nap in his tent when he heard that she’d been kept up all night by the newlyweds. He’d told Callie to go get Alayne earlier in the night, convinced that there was no way she’d be able to sleep at the inn. As the Forsaken studied the sin’dorei out of the corner of her eyes, she wished she had fetched the woman down to the campsite hours ago. Maybe that’s all that was wrong with her, Callie thought to herself. She’s just tired; that’s why her eyes get so hard and brittle and bright. “What’s going on there?” Alayne asked, pulling Callie from her reverie. The Forsaken looked up to see Deathguards marching out of Undercity, taking the road to Silverpine. Quickening her steps, Callie caught up to one of them and got his attention. “The humans are regrouping and attempting to retake Stromgarde,” the soldier answered in response to her question. “We’re going to back up the orc forces. You’re welcome to come along,” he said quickly, “we can use every hand we can find.” Callie said nothing but nodded in understanding and hurried back to Alayne. She found the woman surrounded by a few members of the Disorder of Azeroth who were bringing her up to speed on the situation. Excitement tinged with fear had replaced the fatigue in her eyes. As the Forsaken came close, she heard the other woman saying, “Let them sleep. Callie will get Ger’alin and we’ll follow the forces south.” “Zerith is going to be furious when he finds out,” Callie said after the others were gone. “Zerith probably won’t be able to do anything about it until he gets some sleep,” Alayne laughed wickedly. “You shouldn’t be running into battle yourself either considering you’ve had no sleep.” “No, but then, I wasn’t up all night expending energy like he was. Drop it, Callie,” she said firmly. “I don’t want him in this battle anyway. Let’s get going.” ~*~*~*~ “Ber’lon, it’s good to see you again,” Alayne said happily as she walked over to the hunter she and Zerith had once known. “Alayne!” he laughed, “I’ve heard about your Disorder of Azeroth. I knew you’d make a name for yourself. What are you doing out here in the Arathi Highlands?” he asked.

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“I’m out here with the rest of the Disorder to help the Horde push the humans out for good. We were the ones who took Stromgarde in the first place. Are you well, Ber’lon? You look tired.” “I remember hearing something about that fight. It’s amazing what you’ve been up to. Well, try not to embarrass us out here too much,” he laughed, plucking at his uniform. “The Farstriders would like to get some glory. Where’s Zerith? I figured he’d be with you.” “I know what you mean,” she laughed. “Zerith’s worn out from celebrating. We decided to let him sleep in. I’ve got to get back to the others, now, Ber’lon,” she said, seeing Ger’alin wave for her to return. “Good luck.” “Who was that?” Ger’alin asked when Alayne returned. His face softened as she explained. “Well, then, sounds like we have a challenge. We’ll try not to humiliate him, then,” the fighter laughed. “Get to your places. Remember, this time, you go where the officers order. This is a Horde battle; not a Disorder of Azeroth one.” The mish-mash forces spread out, going to their assigned places in the ranks of the Horde army. The city of Stromgarde loomed before them, its causeway well-guarded by human archers. The broken walls had been rebuilt hastily, but well. It seemed as if the Alliance forces had learned their lesson the first time. Alayne gulped, grateful that Zerith lay sleeping back in Undercity and not out here facing the long fight ahead. “It might come to a siege, in the end,” Ger’alin whispered in her ear. “Nasty things, sieges.” Alayne nodded, not understanding. Moving towards the front of the line, she stood next to the other casters just behind the siege tanks. At a signal from the general, the tankers began to fire and huge stones flew through the air, crashing against the stone walls, denting them, breaking them in places. Another volley followed and then a third. After the fifth, the casters moved forward, eyeing the archers remaining on the broken walls carefully, and began to pick them off. Alayne jumped when an arrow took down the caster next to her but continued to throw her spells. “Zerith is not out here,” she told herself repeatedly, “so you can do what you need to do. You won’t hurt him; you won’t frighten him.” Another arrow flew past, so close that it grazed her cheek. Be strong; protect them! Do not let fear chill your heart, little Alayne! Tal’ar’s daughter screamed inside her head. Nodding to herself, she ignored the warm blood trickling down her face and continued to cast. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the archers were gone. “Advance!” came the command from a troll captain. Alayne pressed herself against the siege engine as the melee fighters and soldiers surged past her, running into the rents in the stone walls and the gates of the city. She saw Ger’alin and Callie run past her and hurried after them. The remaining casters did likewise, moving behind the attacking force to provide cover. Bolts of frost, flame, and shadow flew over the heads of the Horde attackers, lessening the chances of assault from Alliance attackers hidden in the walls. The battle raged on. ~*~*~*~ The man smiled to himself, wrapped in light and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe alike. The Alliance, a passel of fools, thought him on their side. Silent as the grave, he moved among them, easily un-noticed in the midst of the battle raging around him. Those his true master had marked out for his own, the man sought out, stopping near them to jab them with his blessed pin. He could see the cracks running through their souls; the cracks brought by sleepless nights and haunting dreams. They were weak, insignificant. But now…now they could be remade. Now the fools of the Horde and the Alliance would see where true power lay.

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Stepping lightly through the mass of fighting, the man stuck each person as he had been commanded. Finishing his task with a tired elf maiden, he smiled. “For the King,” he whispered as he crept back to his already defeated squadron. ~*~*~*~ Alayne grunted as she felt something sting her on her arm. Ignoring it, she focused her attention on the mass of humanity giving ground in front of her friends. The Horde had overrun the city, pushing the surviving Alliance fighters back to the rear wall of the hold. Alayne glanced up at the sky, surprised to see it half-way down from its noon height. Drawing a ragged breath, she pushed forward, coming close to Callie and Ger’alin. She shook her head, trying to clear it, wondering why her vision had gotten blurry. Rubbing her eyes, trying to ignore the incoherent noise that seemed to pierce her skull, she moved on, looking for something. As she drew near to her friends, she saw a hulking human, half again as tall as the tallest man she’d ever met, stand over them. Raising an enormous axe over his head, he brought it down on Ger’alin, cleaving the elf in two. “No!” Alayne screamed, rushing forward. Summoning her strength, she let waves of flame crash out from her, burning all around her as she screamed in rage and loss. She looked around, seeing only humans. The sight fueled her rage and she channeled more and more hate into the heat of the flames emanating from and engulfing her. Tal’ar’s daughter raged at her, shrieking that she was a miserable failure. A man’s distant laugh of delight rang in her soul as she fought onwards. “Alayne! What are you doing?!” Callie cried out as she jumped out of the woman’s path. Next to her Ger’alin stared in amazement as he tried to ignore the heat and knock the warlock to her senses. “Ber’lon, stop!” someone else shouted at the hunter. He had turned his bow on his own company, emptying his quiver into his fellows as he screamed in the same rage that seemed to have possessed Alayne. “Alayne, stop it!” Ger’alin screamed. The woman didn’t seem to hear him. “The battle’s over!” “They’ve gone mad!” one of the captains shouted. “Take them down before they kill us all!” As Ger’alin looked around, he could see dozens of fighters, magi, priests, and warlocks turning on their comrades, screaming in rage and pain as they fought against those who should have been friends. “Alayne, please!” he pleaded. The woman looked over at him, her eyes filled with hate and empty of recognition. “Forgive me,” he said as he hefted his shield and threw it, wincing when it struck her head and knocked her to the ground. As soon as it connected, the fires stopped. Running over to her, catching her before she reached the stone pavement, Ger’alin sighed with relief to see that she was still alive. “What is going on here?” Callie muttered as she watched the others who had turned on their allies be taken down by those they were fighting. “What madness is this?” Several feet behind her, on his knees with his hands bound behind him, as befitted an apparently vanquished foe, the man smiled. Soon, he thought, soon. ~*~*~*~ “Where am I?” Alayne muttered thickly. She winced when she opened her eyes. Her head ached abominably. This was even worse than the morning after she and Ger’alin had their drinking contest. “Ger’alin,” she sighed, feeling tears leak from her eyes. Guilt, shame,

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and self-hatred tore her soul. Tal’ar’s daughter screamed at her, incoherent in her grief and rage. “I couldn’t…” “You’re awake!” Ger’alin said softly, happily. “Ger’alin?” she said, shocked. Pushing herself up on her elbows, trying to sit up, the room spun around her. Tal’ar’s daughter went silent, stunned. “You’re alive?” “Of course I’m alive,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I be?” “I thought I saw…” she started to say, trailing off. “Oh, thank the Light, you’re alive!” she cried, managing to throw herself in his direction and tackle him. She could feel Tal’ar’s daughter laughing with glee inside her head. “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive,” she whispered over and over again, burying her face in his shoulder. “Why would you think I wasn’t?” he asked in confusion. “Did I hit you over the head too hard?” She ignored him, continuing her repetition. “Um, Alayne, could you get off me? Callie, a little help here?” The Forsaken shook her head as she reached down to try to pry Alayne’s arms away from Ger’alin’s neck. She laughed when the other woman just tightened her grip, making Ger’alin grunt. “I think she’s happier where she is,” the Forsaken commented. “Yes, but I can hardly examine her for further injuries when she’s got me pinned to the ground and barely able to breathe,” the fighter muttered. “What are you three doing?” Zerith asked, sounding amused and scandalized. “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive,” Alayne continued to babble. “Why does she keep saying that?” Zerith muttered, reaching down to touch the back of his sister’s head. “And why is she wearing a bandage?” “That’s actually a very funny story,” Ger’alin began, forcing a laugh as he tried to push her away again. Giving up, he let his arms fall to the ground at his sides. Alayne wasn’t going to be pushed or pried away any time soon. “See, there was this battle; oh, don’t glare at me like that. The Alliance tried to take back Stromgarde yesterday and the Horde forces repelled the attempt. We tagged along because we were bored and you and Dar’ja were going to sleep all day anyway.” “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive.” “Yes, I’m alive, Alayne. Thank you for noticing,” he said. “You were going to sleep all day. From what I heard, you two kept the entire inn up all night. You look funny when you blush, Zerith. Especially from this angle. Anyhow, we went to the battle, along with about half of the Disorder of Azeroth forces who were still in Undercity when the call went out.” “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive,” Callie began to say along with Alayne, stifling a laugh when Ger’alin glared at her. “At any rate, we won. Near the end of the battle, though, about a dozen of our fighters, including Alayne, turned and started attacking us. I have no idea why. I was hoping she could tell me when she woke up…” “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive.” Ger’alin sighed in frustration. “So…why the bandage?” Zerith asked again. “I had to throw my shield at her to knock her out so she’d stop attacking long enough for us to get close to her. I may have hit her a little too hard, to judge by her current reaction.” “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive!” “Has she been healed?” “No. I wasn’t able to and none of the others wanted to heal those who had turned on us. The others like her were rounded up. I think they’re in prison. Some of the higher-ups suspect them of treason. We managed to keep her out of it. Alayne would kill herself before she willingly betrayed any of her people.” 163


With a sigh, Zerith reached out to the Light and channeled the energy into Alayne. He winced in sympathy when he felt the bruise on the side of her head. She’d probably had a concussion. She was lucky her skull hadn’t been fractured. Ger’alin must have knocked her pretty hard if she was suffering from delusions, though. Healing her, Zerith blinked in surprise when she continued to cling to the paladin, muttering that he was alive over and over again. Shaking his head to clear it, Zerith tried again. Again, no change. Probing further, he sucked in a horrified breath, feeling cracks running along the part of her that was her. Deep fissures crisscrossed her spirit; her sanity. He’d first noticed them when they’d rescued her from the Burning Blade. The priest groaned beneath his breath; time and distance should have healed them. Instead, they were worse than ever. “See if you can stand up and carry her,” Zerith said quickly. “This is beyond my ability to heal.” ~*~*~*~ “I never thought I’d say this,” Dar’ja huffed. “I miss Ger’alin.” “I miss him, too. And Alayne. Light, I’ve not seen either of them since we came back. Last I heard, she’d been released from the healers and buried herself in Murder Row,” Zerith sighed, putting an arm around his wife. “I know. I wish we could afford a bigger place. Then, we could get those two to come stay with us. I really miss the jokes, the pranks, the chasing you up a tree when you were spying on us.” “You are a saint,” Zerith laughed. “You really want Ger’alin in your house?” “Him, Alayne, and even Callie. We would have so much fun, just the five of us.” “Maybe we could talk to them, see if we could all find a place together.” “That would be…,” Dar’ja began, stopping when the door of their small apartment shook as someone pounded on it. “I wonder who that is at this time of night.” “I’ll go see,” Zerith sighed, kissing her on the cheek and rolling out of the bed. Tying his robe around his waist, he combed his fingers through his hair and walked quickly over to the door. “No need to knock it off the hinges,” he muttered, pulling open the door. “Zerith!” Alayne squealed, jerking away from the two men holding her arms and throwing her arms around his neck. “I can’t believe you’re...I thought I’d…” “Good evening to you, too, Alayne,” he gasped, pulling her arm loose enough for him to breathe. “You thought what? Alayne? Alayne?” he said, waving his hand in front of her vacant, staring eyes. “What is the matter with her?” he demanded, glaring at the pair with her. “That’s what we hoped you would know,” Jez’ral muttered. “She’s been moping around for three days. I finally got her to tell me that she thought she’d killed you.” “Don’t tell him that!” Alayne hissed, her eyes still staring off into the distance. Zerith did a double-take, peering into her face. That voice sounded nothing like the woman he knew. “Alayne, why would you…never mind.” “Do you have room for her, here?” the other man asked, hovering over her like a mother hen. “They won’t let her stay in Murder Row after last night. I let her stay in my quarters there, thinking they wouldn’t find out but she woke up half the inn just an hour ago, shrieking at the top of her lungs.” “I guess she can sleep on the couch,” Zerith said awkwardly. “If she’s going to be staying with you, you’ll need to find a bigger place,” the other man muttered, glancing inside the small, bare apartment. “I know just the thing, too,” he laughed. Jez’ral shot him an angry glance but said nothing. “Give him the key to…” “But, Mir’el, that was your…” 164


“Yes, and we both know that I’m never bringing home a wife so there’s no use hanging on to it,” the man grinned. “Give him the key. It’s a nice place, young man, and I’m a reasonable land-lord. You’ll find it in the rear of the Bazaar, back away from the shops. I’ll come by in the morning to show you exactly where it is.” “Thank you,” Zerith replied, his attention divided between his sister and his mysterious new benefactor. “Alayne?” “Alayne?” Jez’ral said loudly. Reaching up, he grabbed one of her shoulders, shaking her violently. “Ma’iv said she should take this when she starts…doing this,” he muttered, pulling a vial out of one of his pockets and handing it to Zerith. “It makes her sleep very deeply, though she gets no rest from it. I hate giving it to her because then we can’t wake her up when she starts screaming.” Zerith nodded, taking the vial and leading his sister to the couch. She stumbled along, walking blindly, stopping only when he reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. Turning her around and getting her laid out, he covered her with a blanket hanging from one of the chairs and put the vial to her lips. Glancing up, he saw Dar’ja staring at them from the hallway leading back to their bedroom. “We may just get what we were wishing for,” he said, trying to make light of the situation. “I heard. Zerith, could you close her eyes? That’s really starting to creep me out.” With a gentle touch, Zerith pulled Alayne’s eyelids shut and stoppered the vial. “What is the matter with her?” Dar’ja muttered, walking over and putting a hand on the warlock’s forehead. “Oh my!” she said, stunned. “When did this start?” “Desolace. It started in Desolace,” he answered, praying that it was true. ~*~*~*~ “All this for us?” Ger’alin said, looking at the house warily. He’d been back in Silvermoon for a few weeks, freshly returned from another trip to Kalimdor to work with Tau’re and some of the others he’d grown to know. The Alliance had been threatening Orgrimmar’s lumber supply and Ger’alin, wanting to do something other than deal with the constant refusals by Alayne’s teachers to let them see her, had answered the call. When Zerith had come by the practice yard to invite him over,the fighter tried not to show how glad he’d been of the invitation. When Zerith explained that he and the two women wanted Ger’alin to move into the new home they were renting, the fighter had been nearly overcome. Masking his emotions with humor, he rubbed a finger across his jaw, shaking his head. “It’s a lot of house for two people, I’ll agree. I’m surprised, though, that you already want your sister and some rapscallion like me to move in. I’d have thought you and Dar’ja would want to stay away from us both considering how we accidentally got you married in the first place.” “It’s big, I know,” Zerith explained, “but, well, I’m getting tired of not having you and Alayne around all the time now. She’s always off in the warlock’s area or giving history lessons, when she’s feeling well.” Ger’alin stared at Zerith. He’d not known Alayne was ill at all.“When you’re in town, you’re usually a hard man to track down as well; when you aren’t trying to teach a ‘gaggle of wide-eyed, idiotic, hero-worshipping mud-foots how to hold a sword,’ you’re generally reading books and complaining about the chore. Dar’ja and I decided we wanted you both around more.” “Four bedrooms, though?” he teased. “Callie might stop by…” “I see,” Ger’alin laughed. “This is a clever ploy to have free babysitters on hand.”

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“Not for a while,” the priest muttered. “Anyhow, we’d really like it if you’d consider moving in with us. Dar’ja and Alayne are already planning to do something to the walls so you don’t wake us up when you sleep. Alayne’s claimed the first room at the top of the stairs for her own. She says she wants a quick escape route in case of…well, she’s working on the walls of my and Dar’ja’s room, too.” “Does either of them even know how to use a hammer?” “I don’t know and I’m too scared to ask,” Zerith chuckled. “Come on, at least come in and eat with us. Alayne’s been in the kitchen all afternoon.” “I don’t know whether to be thrilled or terrified,” Ger’alin joked as he walked into the house with Zerith. “What’s she cooking?” he whispered. “Roast beef with some kind of herbal sauce she’s made up herself. She swears it’s one of her father’s favorites. It’s actually pretty good. You like yours rare, right?” “Woman, you better not overcook that roast!” Ger’alin roared loudly as he and Zerith walked into the kitchen. He grinned when he saw her standing on the other side of the room. His grin faded when she didn’t move or even seem to notice her visitors. “Oh no,” Zerith sighed as he hurried over to her. “Alayne? Alayne?” “What’s the matter with her?” Ger’alin asked, stunned. “I don’t know,” Zerith whispered. “These spells have been coming more and more frequently. She barely sleeps anymore unless she’s drugged and she’s always tossing and screaming about something when she’s not. When she wakes up…she’ll act like she’s trying to tell me about it but then…I don’t know what’s wrong with her but it frightens me to death. Alayne? Alayne, can you hear me?” “I’m here,” she said dully, her voice sounding like cold lead. “Talk to me,” he said, trying to make it sound like a question. Ger’alin moved to her other side, staring down at her face. Alayne’s gaze was unfocused and her face slack, as if it took too much energy for her to make any kind of expression. Zerith put a hand on her back, his touch as light as that of a person trying to calm a spooked colt. “Alayne?” “I’m here,” she repeated. Ger’alin opened his mouth to ask what was going on but Zerith raised his other hand, forestalling the fighter. “Here, let’s go sit down,” the priest said, guiding Alayne over to a bench by the fireplace. “Tell me what’s wrong?” “I can’t,” Alayne whispered. “She…no, don’t!” “Who are you talking to?” Alayne continued to stare off into the distance for a few moments longer, silent long enough that Zerith began to worry, glancing back at Ger’alin with a look that pleaded with the other man not to move, not to leave, not to do anything that might disturb her. Reaching up, he put a hand on her forehead, summoning all of the healing power he could and sending it into his sister. He was shaking when he finished; he had to heal her more and more frequently just to keep her relatively normal lately. Suddenly, Alayne shivered, blinked, and smiled warmly. Reaching up, she patted Zerith on the cheek and let her head fall on his shoulder. The man suffered the caress, his visage pleading with her to tell him what was wrong. “Who is it you’re hearing…” he started to ask again. “Ssh,” she said, putting her fingers over his lips. “It’s okay. There’s nothing to worry about. Ah, Ger’alin,” she said, seeing the other man and smiling brightly, “has Zerith managed to talk you into staying with him? If you do, I’ll cook supper for you every night. I’d better keep an eye on that roast,” she grinned, “I’m making it rare, just the way you like it.” ~*~*~*~

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Ger’alin sighed as he finished setting his armor in the closet. Standing up, he arched his back, feeling the muscles unknot. He felt cramped from carrying his belongings to his new home. Sitting down on the bed, he smiled, feeling a sensation he’d not felt since he was a child. He felt as if he were home. Stretching his arms up over his head, he lay back, staring up at the ceiling and letting his feet hang off the end of the bed. Putting the toes of one foot against the heel of the other, he kicked his boots off, enjoying the pleasant lassitude that came with the warmth of early spring and a day spent working the forms instead of hunched over a book. He lifted his head slightly, looking at the door when he heard a faint rustling noise from the hallway. “You look exhausted,” he said lightly. “I am,” Alayne sighed, leaning against the door jamb. “Not sleeping again?” “I can’t sleep,” she muttered. “Every time I close my eyes…,” her mouth slammed shut, almost cutting her tongue in half. Screaming in frustration, she began banging her head against the wooden doorway, pounding on the wall with the side of her fist. “Calm down, Alayne,” he sighed. “Here, come on in here and just sit with me a while. I’m too tired to move right now.” “I should be going to get supper ready,” she said wearily. “I can actually…,” her jaws snapped shut again. “I won’t ask,” he said quickly, worriedly. “Just come sit here beside me and rest for a few minutes before you have to go practice your gourmet cooking. You know, that’s the whole reason I moved in here,” he teased, poking her in the side. “That roast was excellent. They don’t feed us that well at the sanctum.” “It was my father’s favorite,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed and kicking her feet while she stared at the floor. “I used to make it every week, hoping that the smell of it would reach him and bring him back home to us.” “I used to do something similar at the orphanage,” he laughed softly. “Every night, I would wear socks to sleep. It used to drive my mother crazy when I did that; she would always come and take them off me while I slept and hang them on the foot of my bed. I would wake up, checking to see if she’d come to do that. She never did.” “I’ve never heard you talk about your family before,” Alayne said, turning and looking at him, her eyes grave. “Probably because I’ve never spoken about them before,” he smiled. “I don’t like recalling those times. The orphanage wasn’t bad; don’t get me wrong. The matron was as wonderful as could be. But, it was hard growing up around humans.” “I know,” she said, pulling her feet up, slipping her shoes off, and then resting her chin on her drawn up knees. “I grew up in Menethil and I remember how it was. What about your father? Did you have any brothers and sisters?” “No. Mama used to say that I was more than enough for her. I was a little hellion.” “I’ll bet. My mother used to say the same thing about me.” “We should start a club,” he grinned. “Here, you can lie down if you want,” he said, scooting further towards the foot of the bed. “You look like you’re going to fall asleep sitting up.” “I really shouldn’t,” she murmured, letting herself topple over on her side, still curled up in a ball. “I should be cooking while I can…,” she sighed, closing her eyes. Before Ger’alin had a chance to ask what she meant, she was sound asleep. He turned on his side, watching her for a few minutes, grateful that she had finally found rest. Then, easing himself off the bed carefully, he covered her with a spare blanket and went downstairs to see about cooking supper himself.

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~*~*~*~ “Papa?” Alayne asked, seeing her father’s silhouette ahead in the distance. “Alayne, why haven’t you come to me?” “Where are you?” she asked, feeling the other her rise up, grappling with her for control of their shared body and mind. “You must come to me when I call you. I am coming to save you from those who would kill you, my daughter.” “Where are you?” “I am coming to you. Soon. Be ready. Do not let them hurt you any longer!” “What are you talking about? Who’s hurting me? Where are you, Papa?” A rush of visions assaulted her. In them, she could see Zerith, Dar’ja, Ger’alin, and many other sin’dorei sitting around her while she lay chained to a bier. The elves were siphoning off her life force, sucking her dry. She saw her own face turn wan and pale as those around her continued to gorge themselves on her vital energy, laughing whenever she begged them to stop or screamed that they were killing her. Alayne sat bolt upright on the bed, shrieking at the top of her lungs. Raising her hands to her face, she tried to claw her eyes out, to scratch away the sights around her. The room seemed to be a dank cell, remembered from Desolace, and she could feel herself weakening, feel the life being drained out of her body. Pulling her hands from her face, she stared at them, seeing them wasted, thin, the bones threatening to break through the skin, leaving her a skeleton. Silence! Tal’ar’s daughter flogged her, slamming her mouth shut. It was just a dream! “Light, where am I?” Alayne asked in confusion, unable to remember where she was, “What’s happening to me? Let me out of here!” she cried, banging on the wall. “Please, let me out! I just want to go home!” Silence! We…find the door! We’ll go find Papa! He’ll know how to help us! Tal’ar’s daughter shouted. “He said he’d be here soon,” Alayne remembered. “I have to get ready. Where am I? Light, where am I?” We’re alone in the dark…it’s as dark as a grave in here! We have to get out of here! Suddenly, part of the wall flew open. Alayne whirled around, her eyes wild and filled with fear. Three people stood in the hole, staring at her. The warlock reached for her dagger, terrified to see the strangers staring at her. “Let me go!” she begged her captors. “Where do you want to go?” “Home, I want to go home. Let me go home.” That’s…that’s Zerith! Shut up, you fool! It’s just a dream. Just a dream! Do you want to frighten him? “Zerith?” she said uncertainly, as if the name should have been familiar but wasn’t. “I’m here, Alayne.” “I…don’t touch me!” she shouted, jerking out of his grasp, remembering how he had fed off her soul. “I want to go home! I’m going home to Papa!” With that, she shoved past the three, running wildly out into the night. “…but you are home, Alayne,” Zerith said softly. “Light, what’s happening to her?” he asked as he hurried downstairs, hoping to catch her before the guards found her. ~*~*~*~ “Zerith, be reasonable. The three of us aren’t enough to handle her,” Dar’ja said gently. 168


“I’m not sending her away.” “But sweetheart, she’s…” “I am not sending her away and that’s the end of it, Dar’ja.” “We can’t take care of her like she needs to be cared for, Zerith. I don’t like it any more than you but she’s getting worse and worse here. We’re not helping her.” “I am not…” “Found her,” Ger’alin announced as he walked in the front door. Zerith glared at his wife and hurried over to see if Ger’alin needed any help. Dar’ja threw her hands up in the air and followed. “Where was she?” “Sunfury Spire. Confessing to being a traitor, a murderer, a spy, a minion of the Scourge, and running her own private army,” the fighter sighed, ticking her confessed crimes off on his fingers. Alayne lay over his shoulder, limp and unresisting. “Sometimes I wonder if she’s trying to get herself killed.” “Let me see her,” Zerith said softly, reaching up to take Alayne from Ger’alin. The fighter leaned down, steadying her with his hands while he passed her over to her adopted brother. “She’s asleep,” the priest said as he settled into a chair, holding her in his lap like he had held his other sisters when they fell sick. “She is,” Ger’alin agreed, squatting down next to the chair and gazing up at her face. She looked haggard and tired, as if she’d been hard-used. Faint bruises, attesting to a lack of sleep, marred her eyes. Lifting one of his hands, he gently brushed her sun-colored hair away from her forehead and began to channel the healing powers he’d been studying how to use since their return home. “Do you think I haven’t tried…,” Zerith started to say, clicking his teeth shut when the expression on Ger’alin’s face changed from one of curiosity and hope to one of anger. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded. “How long has she been like this?” “I first noticed it when I was healing her after we rescued her from the cultists in Desolace,” Zerith sighed. “It’s got to be just trauma from that. Being captured and tortured would threaten to break any person’s spirit.” “Have she gotten any better? Was it worse than this?” Ger’alin pressed, relentless. “Has she?” “No,” the priest said softly, tears welling in his eyes. “It’s gotten worse. Much worse.” Ger’alin’s face fell and tears began trickling from the corners of his eyes. He looked away, unable to bear the sight any longer. Dar’ja walked over to stand behind her husband, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder for support. Zerith flinched and stiffened at her touch. “I’m not…” he sobbed. “Of course you aren’t,” Dar’ja said softly. “I won’t ask again. I won’t even consider it.” With a wild, body-racking sob, Zerith pulled Dar’ja in front of him and threw an arm around her waist, pulling her in close. Dar’ja wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her cheek against his, stroking the back of his head and letting her own tears mix with his. Ger’alin leaned against the side of the chair and shook with anger and grief. Alayne slept, oblivious to it all. ~*~*~*~ “No, stop, please!” Alayne pleaded, struggling against a weight holding her hands and legs back. “Please, you’ve got to stop it,” she begged. “No,” the woman said, calmly, coldly. “For the love of the Light, stop, please!” 169


“No,” she said as she continued to add weight to the traps holding the other woman down. “I cannot let you do this. You will hurt them. Light, Alayne, it’s only dreams and nonsense. Dreams can’t hurt you! Even dreams…even dreams like that can’t! I will not let you hurt Zerith with your weakness!” “I would never hurt them! I love them; Zerith, Dar’ja, even Ger’alin! They are my friends, my family! Please, you’ve got to let me go! Something is not right here! He haunts my dreams…he tells me…that they’re trying to kill me! You have to let me tell him!” “Never. I will protect them since you are too weak and too eager to pour your pathetic problems on their shoulders. Stop struggling against me. You agreed with me once before. Can you not see that I know best? Has your mind bent so far that you are blind to that, Alayne?” Raising a gauntleted hand, she struck the chained and bound woman, hitting her in the face until she was unconscious. “I will do what must be done.” ~*~*~*~ “Alayne, what are you doing?” Ger’alin asked when he saw the woman wandering around the square in front of the Farstrider’s Court. She rarely ventured into this part of the city, preferring to spend her time in Murder Row with the other warlocks or in the library. “Alayne?” he asked again, gently taking hold of her arm. She looked up at him, her eyes glassy and blank and then, with a look of fear, jerked out of his grasp, backing away until one of the archers cursed at her. She’d nearly walked into his line of fire. Ger’alin sighed and went to drag her away. He braced himself, waiting for the screaming to begin. He was pleasantly surprised when, for once, instead of shrieking, she smiled up at him, her eyes clearing. He could feel the tension melting away as Alayne looped her arm through his and began to speak, her words making sense. “I came to find you,” she was saying as she led him towards the gates of the city. “Well, you found me,” he laughed as he let her drag him along. “Yes, I did,” she answered brightly. Too brightly. “I made a picnic like we used to have when I was young. Come on.” “Alright, Alayne. I’m coming. I suppose Zerith and Dar’ja are waiting for us?” “Oh no,” she said, her face losing its happy expression. “I forgot them.” “Oh, well, don’t worry about it,” Ger’alin said hastily. “Zerith told me that they had their own plans for today. Come on, Alayne. Smile?” He had stopped in the middle of the road when she had. Turning, he put a gentle hand under her chin and lifted her face. Her eyes were vacant again, as they had been earlier. Sighing, he stood there, staring into her blank eyes, praying she would come back to herself soon. “Can’t you see that you’re hurting him? We have to ask him! We have to know!” “Be quiet, woman! I will silence you yet, little Alayne!” For long minutes, he stood there, keeping her from wandering off and staring at his own worried face reflected in her empty eyes. Then, without warning, she began walking off towards the city gates. Turning, he jogged to catch up. “I hope you like sandwiches,” she was saying as if there had been no pause. “I made a lot of them.” ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin leaned back against the wall that wrapped around the city. Alayne had made a lot of sandwiches. He made a mental note to buy more bread as it seemed she may have used the entire loaf. Moving carefully, he pulled a book from his pack and, pulling up one 170


knee, set it against his leg so he could read while he waited for Alayne to wake up. She slept peacefully, her head on his thigh and her body curled up in a ball beside him. He knew he shouldn’t let her sleep in the afternoon, but he couldn’t bear to wake her. She slept so infrequently of late, he wanted her to get what rest she could find. Balancing his book on his other knee, he read, turning the pages quietly. Alayne turned, rolling on her back, murmuring in her sleep. Ger’alin stopped reading and watched her face. He was tempted to wake her now, seeing her brow furrow and hearing her sound as if she were having an unpleasant conversation with someone. Putting his hand on her shoulder, he shook her gently, hoping to rouse her enough to at least pull her from the dream. It seemed to work. Alayne sighed and settled back into a more peaceful slumber. Glancing around, Ger’alin lifted his hand from her shoulder and placed it on her forehead. He knew that Zerith had tried healing already, but maybe it would work this time. Blocking out the fear of failure that haunted him since Mannoroc Coven, Ger’alin drew upon the powers he’d been learning to wield and channeled the healing energies into Alayne. He gritted his teeth in frustration, sensing no change in the woman. Opening himself wider, he let the Light-energies pour through him and into her until he could feel sweat dripping from his face and hear his breath coming in gasps. “Surely now, now she’ll be well,” he whispered as he fought to get his breathing back to normal. Placing his hand back on her forehead, he searched once again. No change. He could still sense the widening cracks running through her spirit. Lowering his face, he told himself it was the sweat that was dripping down his cheeks. ~*~*~*~ Zerith ground the herbs into powder, following the instructions the Apothecaries had sent to Silvermoon. He tried to focus on that and ignore the screaming from the suffering patients behind him. Several had had to be restrained, bound to their beds to keep them from attacking the healers. Finishing the mixing, Zerith stirred the grounded herbs into a cup of wine and carried it to Ma’iv, the leading healer of the sanitarium. “Thank you, Zerith,” the older priest muttered, taking the cup and holding it against the lips of a young elven man. “Drink, Ber’lon.” Zerith nearly bit his tongue. The man in front of him looked nothing like the hunter he and Alayne had worked with so long ago. His black hair was matted and filthy, hanging lankly from his shoulders. Patches of it were missing as if he had pulled it out at the roots. The skin of his face was sickly pale and ugly purple and blue bruises hung under his dull green eyes. “No change,” Ma’iv sighed. Zerith reached up and placed a hand on the man’s forehead, pulling away as if burned when he sensed the exact same breaks in Ber’lon’s mind that he had found in Alayne’s. “Ma’iv,” Zerith asked, “what is this malady?” “That’s a good question,” the elder said wearily. “No one seems to know what it is. All we know is that once the person begins to descend into madness, conventional healing fails. I suppose all we can do is keep them calm until the Light takes them. What?” he asked, seeing the stricken look on his young attendant’s face. “How does it start? How did it start with him?” Zerith demanded. “Ber’lon, what’s going on?” he asked the hunter. The man stared at him blankly. “Come on, Ber’lon, remember me? Remember Alayne? Tell me what’s happening in that mind of yours!” The hunter continued to sit silent. Zerith rounded on his superior. “We’ve got to find a way to cure this, Ma’iv!” “Do you think we haven’t been trying?” Ma’iv asked, sounding offended. “What have I had you doing almost every day? Treating them. Caring for them. They’ve been abandoned by kith and kin. Some would say that even the Light has forsaken them. These poor madmen 171


have one thing in common though I have heard stories of something similar spreading through the populace in Kalimdor. At any rate, I think our only option is to wait and pray…and to grieve for them now that no one else will care for them.” “Is that why so many are here?” “Look around you and see those who turned on their comrades in Stromgarde,” Ma’iv sighed. “Almost all of them were rounded up after the battle and put in the cells of Undercity. Once the Apothecaries realized that these poor souls weren’t traitors; merely madmen, they released them to their friends and families. In time, their friends and families sent them here. And now, I’m afraid that all that is left for them is to wait for the end. Nothing we do helps. Nothing we do brings them back for any length of time. In truth, my son, they are dead men walking.” “I will not let that happen to Alayne,” Zerith said, forcing the words through his clenched teeth. “I will not let that happen to my sister!” ~*~*~*~ “So, how’s life with the newlyweds?” Callie asked Alayne. It had been several months since she’d last seen the four sin’dorei. The four had returned to Silvermoon and promptly buried themselves. Zerith and Dar’ja were enjoying the dawn of their marriage and Ger’alin and Alayne had hit the books with renewed vigor. “I’m thinking about removing the headboard of their bed,” Alayne muttered. “I’ve taken to trying to sleep in the other end of the house most nights.” “Thanks for the warning, Alayne,” Callie chuckled. “I’ll plan to stay at the inn while I’m in town. Where’s Ger’alin?” “Ger’alin’s probably dying of impatience waiting on us. I should have met him outside the city ten minutes ago. I forgot,” she said ruefully. “Ah. So, he’s still teaching you the sword?” “No. He’s teaching me how to make cookies. I’m just wearing this thing for decoration,” she laughed, swinging the scabbard of her sword around. Giggling together as if they had not been apart a day, the two hurried out of Silvermoon, Alayne stopping frequently to shake her head as if to clear it. Callie watched her, feeling worried. “He must have whapped you really hard if your head’s still hurting after three months,” she joked. Alayne blinked and looked confused but said nothing, walking on. Outside the city, the grass sparkled in the midday sun like emeralds. A warm, spring breeze blew gently through, carrying the scent of flowers in bloom. Squirrels, birds, and dragonhawks danced around the trees, the coming of spring bringing them out of hibernation and migration. Youthful sin’dorei hurried to and fro on errands, still working to clear their territory completely of the Scourge and of creatures wrought from the failed experiments of the Magisters. “I’ve never noticed,” Callie muttered as she watched a pair of young elven men stroll past, “but there doesn’t seem to be a single ‘old’ elf in the city.” “Yeah, we’re a young bunch,” Alayne laughed. “Probably Lord Lor’themar is the eldest of us. I think he’s probably around two hundred or so, give or take a few decades. Hey, it’s not something we really talk about,” she muttered. “Most survivors are our age. In their early twenties to thirties, if not younger, like me. All the rest were killed when the Scourge came through. My father was considered fairly young and he was,” he tapped her lip while she thought, “around ninety or so when I was born. He and my mother married young; they were only in their seventies when they eloped, according to Mama.” “In their seventies?”

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“Yes. Things certainly have changed,” Alayne sighed. “If the war hadn’t happened, Zerith and Dar’ja would never be carrying on like they are,” she laughed. “All of us would be considered children, to be kept under the watchful eyes of our parents while we trained in the crafts that we would follow as adults, once we hit our sixties or so. Ah, there’s Ger’alin. Let’s not keep him waiting.” “Callie!” Ger’alin called out when he saw who was walking with Alayne. “It’s been far too long!” “Far too long since you bashed something?” the Forsaken laughed, running up and hugging the paladin fondly. “Indeed,” he said. “I keep hoping that Zerith and Dar’ja will decide to go somewhere interesting for their honeymoon and take the entire Disorder of Azeroth with them.” “Fat chance of that happening,” Alayne muttered as she unsheathed her sword. “A man can dream, can’t he? Let’s get started.” For the next hour, the two sin’dorei dueled each other, Ger’alin occasionally stopping to correct part of Alayne’s pose or form. The woman had improved drastically in her technique, her motions almost as fluid and easy as Ger’alin’s. Several times, she disarmed the man, using her greater dexterity to deflect his strength. Callie sat to the side, watching in rapt attention. To watch the pair work their blades together was like watching the rehearsal of a skilled acting troupe, a pleasure even when it was less than perfect. The only detraction was Alayne’s eyes. Sometimes unfocused, frequently too bright and too hard, there seemed to be an air of something not quite right about the elf woman. A similar feeling had permeated the tone of her voice earlier. Callie shoved such thoughts aside, refusing to consider them. “I just haven’t seen her in a while, is all,” the Forsaken thought to herself. “We’d better stop before poor Callie gets too bored,” Ger’alin said after he’d managed to disarm Alayne using a wrist-lock. He bent down and grabbed a pair of face towels, tossing one to the woman while wiping his face with the other. “Do you have any plans for tonight?” he asked the Forsaken. “Ack!” Alayne yipped as if she’d been bitten. Ger’alin and Callie stared at her. “I completely forgot to go by the bazaar and pick up supper for tonight. I’ve got to run and go do that before it closes!” she said, tossing her towel to Ger’alin and dashing off. “I guess I’m eating with you,” Callie said. “You’ll have to show me where you’re living, though.” “Of course,” he laughed. “Alayne forgot that bit, too, did she?” “Sometimes I wonder about her.” “As do I, Callie, as do I,” the fighter sighed. “How has she been? She seems well.” “She does. It’s an act, though. It’s a carefully crafted act to hide something…Light, I wish I could get her to tell me what it is, though. She’s come close to breaking down, once or twice, since she almost got herself exiled. Did she forget to tell you about that as well?” “No..” “Well, when we first got back here, apparently she went off and threw herself at Lord Lor’themar’s feet and confessed to all manner of crimes. She didn’t even tell him that she’d been captured and tortured by the Burning Blade; Jez’ral had to do that. Sometimes I think she was trying to get herself executed.” “And that made her come close to cracking?” “No, that came later. About a week after she’d been sent to stay with Zerith and Dar’ja – don’t ask – she started having those strange dreams again, only worse this time because we can’t wake her from them. Sometimes, she doesn’t even wake from them when she wakes up! Well, she went to Lord Lor’themar again and started telling him some string of nonsense she’d dreamed about a civil war coming to Quel’Thalas unless we all went to 173


Northrend – don’t ask, I don’t understand it myself – and he threatened to have her locked up in the sanitarium. Said she was speaking treason. Jez’ral managed to convince the government that Alayne’s suffering from some kind of sickness brought on by stress. That evening, Zerith sat her down and pleaded with her to talk to him. The man was weeping, Callie, begging her to spill it. I must confess; I was, too. I think she was about to finally break down and tell us what was going on in her head; she’d opened her mouth like she was going to but then she clammed right back up. Only now, it’s worse when she does it. She didn’t speak – not a single word – for two weeks! It was eerie. She just walked around, staring, not blinking, not speaking, not even eating unless you put the food in her mouth, for about a fortnight. Then, one morning, she just…woke up. We came downstairs to her happily cooking, or rather, burning, breakfast. She was chattering on like nothing had happened. As far as she’s concerned, nothing did happen. She didn’t even realize any time had passed.” “And there was another time?” “Light, I don’t even want to think about that one. That one was worse. I thought she was going to die. It almost killed me,” he whispered morosely. “What happened?” “Zerith and Dar’ja decided to get away from the city for a few days. I guess they got tired of hearing Alayne and I throw things at the wall when they would wake one of us at night, our rooms being on either side of theirs. Yes, they can get loud,” he said with a blush, then muttered something about his mother washing his mouth out with soap, “anyway, they took off for a few days. I had just about decided to go stay in my quarters in Farstrider Square with the rest of the Blood Knights; I was spending most of my days there anyway, studying. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I can read. I guess Alayne wasn’t paying attention or maybe I was being quieter than I realized. I must have snuck up on her, from her point of view. All I did was walk up behind her and tap her on the shoulder. She whirled around and just started screaming at the top of her lungs. Zerith told me to be careful about getting close to her; he told me about what that warlock did to her when she went for her trials. Luckily, Zerith says she killed the bastard who dared lay hands on her. If she hadn’t, I would be hunting him down right now.” “Ger’alin, are you listening to yourself?” Callie whispered. The man didn’t hear her. “At any rate, I must have frightened her,” he continued. “Like I said, she started screaming. I tried everything to get her to stop but she wouldn’t. The city guard came, and that made it even worse. They were trying to haul her off, I suppose. She had a fit; threw one of them through the door – it was closed – and just curled up in a little ball. She went stiff as a board, then. I wound up having to carry her to the cathedral. It took five priests and a couple of Blood Knights, not to mention me, to get her laid out so she could be examined. I felt her pulse, Callie; there’s fast and then there’s what hers was. And she was just laying there, stiff, cold, her eyes wide open but seeing nothing. She stayed like that for three days before she just blinked, sat up, and announced that she was hungry. The priests got her off that time; they said it was a fever of some sort and she wasn’t responsible for what had happened.” “What did Zerith say about it?” “I’ve not told him about it yet.” “You what? Why not?” “Because I don’t think I can. If I tell him, he may decide to send her away. I don’t think that’s the right answer. I think all she needs is to get out of here and do something useful for a time. Maybe coming back here was the mistake. She’s spending too much time cooped up with her thoughts, with her studies, and with that bastard Jez’ral, who I’m still going to kill as soon as I can find a plausible excuse,” he muttered. “I keep hinting to Zerith that we should get back out there; that there’s a whole world out there to explore. Frankly, I think he’s too wrapped up in being Mister Married Man to notice anything that isn’t written 174


in three foot high red letters and shoved under his nose. Or maybe I’ll take Alayne back out into the world myself,” he sighed. “To hell with anyone who would think anything improper was going on between us. I should have taken her with me when we went into Warsong Gulch months ago but I didn’t. I should have…I should have done a lot of things when I had the chance.” Callie stood aghast, staring at her friend. Their months apart had wrought changes in him she hadn’t dreamed possible. With a sigh, he came back to himself, forcing smooth the creases of worry that marred his forehead and blinked the sudden hardness from his eyes. With a smile, he turned and looked down at her, once familiar eyes shining out of a stranger’s face. “But enough of that kind of talk,” he said gently. “Come on, let me show you to our happy home.” ~*~*~*~ “Callie!” Dar’ja said happily as Ger’alin and the Forsaken entered the house. “It’s so good to see you again.” “It’s been far too long,” Callie murmured as she glanced around. Further in the house, she could hear pots banging. Dar’ja gave a start every time a loud crash echoed through the corridor. “Need any help for dinner?” the guest offered politely. “Thank you, but it’s probably better if we don’t go in there while she’s cooking,” Dar’ja said with a sigh. “She’s already bolted the door against me once. Luckily, Zerith’s become something of a master lock-pick so I don’t have to worry too much about her burning down the house tonight.” “Alayne’s cooking?” Ger’alin grimaced. Seeing Dar’ja nod, he muttered something about dining out that evening and turned on his heel. Dar’ja glared at the man’s retreating back but said nothing, clenching her jaws and balling up her fists in frustration. Callie stood uncomfortably, wondering if she should follow Ger’alin out or not. She jumped in fright when she heard the front door of the house slam shut with a bang. It was too late now, it seemed. “He exaggerates, you know. Alayne’s really a good cook,” Dar’ja said brightly, as if to a stranger. “He told me a lot of things, Dar’ja,” Callie said tonelessly. “I want to know the truth. He danced around it quite a bit. Is Alayne going mad?” Dar’ja bit her tongue in shock at the question. “Alayne will be fine.” “If what he told me is even half true…” “Well, I hope you like your food flame-grilled,” Zerith muttered as he left the kitchen. “She’s got that little imp in there helping her now. Blasted thing. She couldn’t get the fire going, Dar’ja,” he explained, seeing his wife clench her jaw in anger. “Callie!” he smiled, seeing his friend in the hallway. “Hi Zerith,” Callie said, cutting short the greetings. “Is Alayne going mad?” “You’ve talked to Ger’alin, I see,” Zerith said irritably. “Do you want the truth or do you want to hear what he wants to hear?” “The truth would be fine with me.” “Then let’s go in the living room and be comfortable. This could take a while.” The three walked past the kitchen door, moving further into the small house and seated themselves around a darkened fire place. “Tell me what Ger’alin told you so I won’t just be repeating what you already know.” “She’s been acting erratically, and irrationally, and she’s not sleeping well. From what he told me, she’s had some kind of nervous breakdown.”

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“That’s not far off the mark,” her brother sighed. “There are days I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if I…but, never mind about that,” he said, seeing the look on Callie’s face. “Did he tell you about the others?” “What others?” “What’s happening to Alayne is happening to many other sin’dorei,” Dar’ja answered. “It starts off with bad dreams and problems sleeping. After they’re weakened by lack of rest, the next phase starts: paranoia, waking dreams…” “You remember how she was when she came back from her trials, Callie? Paranoid? Didn’t want anyone to touch her? Well, for a while, I thought it was just because she’d been assaulted by the leader of the Burning Blade. Oh, don’t worry. She killed him before he could…” Zerith growled. “You’ve heard about what happened in Stromgarde? The second time she went?” “Heard about it? I was there, Zerith.” “Well, then you know it’s not just her. Something happened there; something we don’t know about and that they can’t tell us. See, before Stromgarde, from what I can piece together, all of the people who we’ve had to put away were already having problems sleeping due to bad dreams. At Stromgarde, they all turned on their friends, attacking them. After Stromgarde…they’ve grown worse and worse, less able to tell reality from their paranoid delusions by the day.” “Can’t you just heal them? Or just explain things to them?” “Do you think we haven’t tried that?” Dar’ja muttered. “Ger’alin and Zerith have followed her, day and night, trying to reason with her, bring her back to herself when she was delusional. It doesn’t register. There are days she wakes up convinced we’re all dead and is startled nearly out of her wits when one of us walks past her. We’ve padded the stairs since she has a habit of knocking us off our feet and nearly strangling us with joy when she wakes up like that. When we got back here to Silvermoon, Zerith had a long talk with Jez’ral to figure out what might have happened to cause her mind to start slipping. I thought it might have to do with the first battle in Stromgarde. But, it’s more than that. I wish she could just tell us…” “She relives that battle again and again,” Zerith sighed. “And, she sees herself turning on those she loves. She sees us turning on her,” he sighed again, more sadly. “That’s why she wakes up the entire neighborhood with her screams some nights.” “Did she finally open up to you about that?” Dar’ja asked. “If so, she may be…” “No, she didn’t. Lord Lor’themar told me about it the last time I had to go drag Alayne away from the Sunfury Spire. He said she was demanding to be locked up because she was going to kill all of us or we were killing her or something. We’re lucky he, at least, understands that she’s ill. That’s the only reason the city guard hasn’t tossed her into a cell.” “Oh,” Dar’ja sighed. “So, how do you make her better?” Callie asked in confusion. “We can’t. Ma’iv, one of the best healers we have, says that Alayne has to make that decision herself and either she can’t or won’t let herself. That’s the second phase of the malady. It starts with the dreams and troubled sleep. Then the mind slips a few rungs and the person becomes paranoid, impervious to logic or reason. The third phase is a descent into complete mania until the person manages to kill themselves, usually through some accident, not any kind of deliberate planning,” Zerith said, reaching up to wipe tears from his eyes. “By that point, they don’t have the ability to plan anything. Should Alayne go that far, we will have to commit her, for her own safety. Light, she’s one of the last still somewhat sane. None of the others managed to make it a month. Ber’lon, the only other hold-out...,” Zerith sighed, unable to continue. “Can’t you just heal her?” the Forsaken repeated. 176


“The Light can heal all the wounds to the body. It can offer comfort to the troubled spirit. It cannot unbreak a shattered mind. And I’m terribly afraid that that is what we are facing with her and with the others.” “So, you’re just going to sit around here with your wife and Ger’alin and wait for Alayne to go mad and die?” “What else can we do? Our best healers, even the Apothecaries, have found no way to treat this disease. I know it’s driving Ger’alin to desperation to just sit around and do nothing but there’s no enemy to fight here. I worry about him more than her, to be honest. I think he blames himself for all this, as if he could have foreseen it in any way. I’ve gone through a fair bit of that myself.” “So, why did you send for me?” Callie asked in a small voice. “To give you a chance to say good-bye,” Zerith whispered. ~*~*~*~ “No, no, on the wood, you little idiot!” Alayne growled at the imp. “Fire on wood. That’s not a difficult concept. Fire on wood. No fire on robe. No fire on table. Fire on WOOD!” The imp danced around the kitchen, knocking pots and pans off the walls, merrily ignoring the warlock. With a scream of frustration, Alayne dropped the carrots she’d been trying to slice and closed her eyes. She could recall, vaguely, a time when commanding an imp had been easy. Now, it took all of her concentration just to keep the little thing from running amuck. She opened an eye when she heard a “fwoosh,” over near the stove. Turning, she saw the wood stacked inside glowing brightly in the flames. “Thank you,” she muttered as she dismissed the imp back to the Nether. “Urgh,” she muttered. There had been a time when concentration had been easier. When it had been less tiring, at least. These days, it took all of her energy just to remember what was normal and not start wandering aimlessly, as she’d seen others doing. Sometimes, she couldn’t even manage that well enough. Inside her skull, she could hear Tal’ar’s daughter berating her for all of the times she’d failed to maintain control, all the times Ger’alin or Zerith had been worried for her. All the times she’d failed to be the sweet, normal woman they wanted her to be. She couldn’t remember why she wanted to remain normal, but it seemed like it was important that she manage that. Maybe if she could just go work on her sword forms for a little while; that always seemed to help. Her thoughts didn’t wander so much then. “Oh, wait, supper,” she muttered, turning back towards the stove. She dropped the carrots directly into the fire, put the roast in the pot of water on the burner, and set the bowl of dough Dar’ja had made earlier on the roast-rack in the oven. Supper taken care of, she dusted her hands and walked out of the kitchen. “Where was I going?” she muttered to herself. “Oh, yes, to practice…something.” “Alayne? Do you need help?” Zerith called out from the living room. “I’m just going to the library,” she answered. “It’s closed, Alayne,” he sighed, standing up and escorting her into the living room. “It closes at sunset. Now, come here and let’s talk with Callie for a while.” Dar’ja leapt up and rushed into the kitchen while Zerith settled Alayne down on the couch next to her friend. Callie looked deeply upset about something. And Ger’alin was missing. Alayne knew that something was wrong with the picture in front of her; this was supposed to be a happy time. Had she done something wrong? Tal’ar’s daughter flogged at her, beating her mentally for messing this evening up. The day had gone so well... Alayne leaned back against the couch, closing her eyes. If only she could focus…

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~*~*~*~ “Well, I managed to salvage most of supper,” Dar’ja muttered when she re-entered the living room a few minutes later. “The roast was in the water, the carrots are burnt to a crisp, and I hope you didn’t want any bread. The bowl was on fire.” “Ssh,” Zerith hushed his wife. “She’s asleep. Here, Callie, help me carry her to her room.” The two lifted the sleeping woman, Zerith taking her shoulders and Callie holding her feet, and carried her down the hallway and up the stairs. Laying her down on her bed, Zerith tossed a quilt over her and, checking to see that the window shades were bolted shut, locked her in. “She’s taken to sleep walking from time to time,” he explained. “I guess she’s had a rough day. It’s been one of her better ones, though. She spent most of it wasting her time with Jez’ral. I almost feel sorry for that bastard,” the priest muttered. “I don’t,” Callie growled. “You can’t blame this all on him, Callie,” Zerith sighed. They had returned to the living room. “Alayne was falling ill almost from the time she returned to our homeland. And, she’s not the only one so afflicted. There was a hunter we knew, Ber’lon. He was picked up and locked away for good last week. They found him wandering the streets at dawn, his bow missing its string, trying to fire arrows at the shrubbery. He’s in the sanitarium now, catatonic. You haven’t been here, Callie. All of this seems sudden to you. Trust me, I’ve been watching her suffer for the past few months. It kills me that there’s nothing to be done about it. Come on,” he said, trying to smile and failing, “let’s at least eat something. Alayne’s better in the mornings most days,” he said, patting the Forsaken on the knee. Callie nodded, openmouthed, and stood. After she and Dar’ja had left the room, Zerith folded his hands, closed his eyes, and prayed harder than he ever had before. “Light, let her stay with us as long as she can,” he begged, seeing Ber’lon’s staring, sightless eyes floating in front of his face. ~*~*~*~ “Come to me, little one,” the man whispered gently, as if he were encouraging the toddling first steps of a baby, “I’ve shown you what awaits you if you stay with them. If you come to me, I can restore you, heal you, and let you be the woman you were meant to be.” “But, I can’t leave Zerith,” she whispered uncertainly. “Zerith has his wife to look after him. He doesn’t need or want you. If you stay with him, you will die.” Alayne opened her eyes. She lay in her room, on her bed, in the dark. Rising to her feet, she walked over to the door. It was locked. Her brow furrowed in confusion; why had she been locked in? She knew she needed to get out; someone had called for her. A man, she remembered, a man who said he could heal her. Taking her dagger to the knob, she struggled to open the lock on her door. Zerith would be happy if she were well again. And Ger’alin wouldn’t look as if he were about to cry all the time. And we could protect them better. We could help them and keep them safe, always. “Don’t worry about your friends, my child,” she heard the man whisper in her mind. “They will be taken care of. Come to me now.” “I can’t,” she muttered. “The door’s locked.” She heard an amused sigh of pity from her ghostly benefactor. Sitting herself down on the bed, she waited. If she could not get to him; he would come to her. Deep inside, she knew it. Outside, she heard the front door open and then someone remove the key from the desk drawer. Then steps to her door and the key opening the lock with a quiet click. She smiled, recognizing the face of the man who had come to get her though she’d not seen him in 178


months. Closing the door behind her, she followed Ber’lon out into the streets, moving through the shadows for the ziggurat that had come for them. ~*~*~*~ “Zerith, wake up,” Dar’ja said, shaking her husband. He muttered in his sleep, turning and burying his face in the covers. “Zerith, I heard something. Go check on it.” The priest sighed in frustration. Usually when he got up to check for these mysterious noises, he found nothing more than shadows. Occasionally, he’d found Alayne wandering the house in her sleep, but she was locked in tonight. He’d started doing that after she almost set herself on fire walking too close to the fireplace. “Alright, Dar’ja. I’m awake,” he sighed, standing up and shoving his feet into his slippers. “I’ll go check on it,” he said wearily as he tied the belt of his robe around him. “It’s probably nothing,” he muttered as he opened the door and walked out into the hallway. “Or maybe it is something,” he said, dread creeping over him when he saw the front door standing open. He ran down the hallway to the living room. Callie lay asleep on the couch. Hurrying back upstairs, he saw that Alayne’s door was still shut and that Ger’alin had still not returned home. Nothing seemed to be missing and no intruder was to be found. Rolling his eyes at his foolish panic, he went back downstairs to close and lock the front door. “Zerith!” he heard Ger’alin call out as he was pulling the door shut. “Come here.” Zerith glared at the fighter, wanting nothing less than to go stand out in the middle of the street in his house robe but the look on the man’s face stopped him. Storming out, to Ger’alin, he looked up in the direction the man was staring. “I know I’ve probably had one too many to drink this evening,” Ger’alin muttered, “but what in the name of the Light is that?” he asked, pointing up to a floating building hanging just over the gates of Silvermoon. Zerith didn’t have time to ponder the question as, suddenly, skeletons, zombies, and other minions of the Scourge poured into the streets. ~*~*~*~ “Well that was certainly unexpected,” Ger’alin muttered as he finished wiping the remains of zombies off his blade. “Hell of a way to get sober, though.” “Yes, joke about it, why don’t you?” Zerith muttered angrily as he pulled his hair out of his face. “An attempted Scourge invasion in the middle of the night and you jest. Do you take anything seriously?” “I take too many things seriously,” the fighter muttered, his eyes suddenly haggard. “I’ll go see if any of the guards need healing. You go on back home and check on the others.” “I guess I can trust you to look after that,” Zerith laughed. “You’ve really been studying hard at healing ever since we returned.” “I have. I hope it will be enough to help…” the fighter said, trailing off. Without another word, he turned and hurried down the street to see if others needed his assistance. Zerith watched him go sadly. If the former-warrior-turned-healer could somehow wrest the power necessary to heal Alayne, Zerith would not question the source. Giving himself a shake, he turned and walked back down the road to his house. “We wondered where you were,” Dar’ja said when he opened the door. She was sweeping dust and fragments of bones out into the back alley. “A couple of skeletons got in here. Callie made short work of them. Alayne slept through the entire thing.” “I should have been here,” he said contritely. “Ger’alin and I got caught up in the fighting and were pushed most of the way down the street before it was done.”

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“Where is he?” Dar’ja muttered. “Has he been out drinking again? He’s turning into a regular sot lately.” “Leave him alone, Dar’ja,” Zerith said warningly. “You should have woken me,” Callie said as she came back into the house. “I hate missing the best of the fighting. Oh, did I walk in on something?” she asked, shying back at the looks passing between Zerith and Dar’ja. “No, you didn’t,” Dar’ja muttered as she finished brushing the last of the filth out of the house. Tossing the broom in a corner, she swept past Zerith and Callie and returned to her room, slamming the door. “You guys certainly have changed,” Callie muttered. Zerith shot her a withering look. “I’ll just go back to sleep, then,” the Forsaken said, pointing towards the couch. No sooner had she settled in than the front door creaked open again to admit Ger’alin. “Is everyone well?” the man asked Zerith. Callie didn’t hear a response. “Well, then, I’ll just go check on Alayne,” she heard Ger’alin say. “You’ll need this,” Zerith said, opening a drawer in the desk that stood in the hallway. “You locked her in?” “I’ve been locking her in for weeks now since we woke up to find her standing in the living room, the hem of her nightgown smoking.” “I suppose you’re right,” Ger’alin said as he climbed up the stairs. “Hm, you forgot to turn the lock, Zerith,” he called down. “No, I didn’t,” the priest said, apprehension in his voice. The next thing Callie heard was an upstairs door creak open and then slam shut and Ger’alin come pounding down the stairs. “She’s not there,” he said, panicked. “I’m going out to look for her.” “I’ll come with you,” Zerith replied. “And I’ll come along too,” Callie called out, tossing her blanket aside and chasing after the pair. ~*~*~*~ “Our losses for the night?” Lor’themar asked the captain of the guard. The smoky smell of fire hung thick in the air around Sunfury Spire. Leaning on the window sill, Lor’themar could see the pyres dotting the square where the carcasses of the Scourge invaders were being burnt. “None, my Lord,” the captain replied. Lor’themar turned and stared at the man in shock. “We took no casualties. The Scourge may have just been testing our defenses. The Lich King ever was one to use a feint to draw his enemies after him. Perhaps that’s what he hoped to do this night; lure our forces out of the city.” “We took no casualties? From the Scourge? That’s impossible,” Lor’themar muttered. “No one’s missing? Unaccounted for?” “To my knowledge, no, my Lord.” “This doesn’t make any sense,” Lor’themar snarled, gripping the sill until his knuckles turned white. “Why would Arthas just throw forces away?” “My Lord! My Lord!” came a man’s desperate cries from the outer entry way. Lor’themar recognized the voice as belonging to Ma’iv, the priest in charge of the sanitarium. “Let him through,” Lor’themar ordered. The guards lifted their spears and let the priest run into the inner chamber. “What is it, Ma’iv?” “The patients, my Lord,” the man gasped. “They’ve escaped! They tore apart the healers set to watch them this night and ran out. We followed them as far as the gates of Silvermoon. Once they got there, just underneath that floating monstrosity, they vanished!” 180


“I see,” the Regent-Lord of Silvermoon said. “Return to the sanitarium. Tell no one else what you’ve told me. Until you hear further, the sanitarium is under quarantine. Order the rest of your healers to do the same. If word of this leaks out, I’ll kill the gossipers myself. You there,” Lor’themar said, pointing to one of the guards. “Go to Undercity immediately. Ask the Lady Sylvanas to report to me as soon as she is able. And you,” he pointed to one of the attendants, “go and fetch Rommath. Tell him I want him in here now. All of the rest of you are dismissed. Speak of this to no one!” Once he was alone, save for the guards watching his door, Lor’themar sank down onto the chair before his desk. He didn’t know what exactly had passed this night, but he had a horrible suspicion that it did not bode well for Silvermoon, the sin’dorei, or the Horde. ~*~*~*~ “I dislike leaving my city for any reason, my Lady,” Lor’themar muttered as he entered the orc stronghold. “I know you do,” Sylvanas whispered, her voice reverberating with contempt. “But when Thrall orders us to Orgrimmar, we go without question. Neither you nor I are in any position to deny the demands of the Warchief. Now, stop whining and let’s get on with it!” The banshee queen and the regent-lord moved further into the stronghold, leaving their retinues behind them. Orc guards admitted them to a dark, stone room carved into the mountain that reared behind the city of Orgrimmar. Cairne Bloodhoof and Vol’jin of the Darkspear sat on the floor of the room. They glanced back over their shoulders at the newcomers and then turned their attention to the orc standing before them. “You’re here,” Thrall muttered. “Be seated.” Lor’themar bit his tongue at the orc’s brisk orders and said nothing. Seating himself awkwardly on the stone floor, he held his peace. Sylvanas remained standing, muttering that she would not lower herself to such indignity. Thrall seemed to take that in stride and nodded. Without further introduction, the Warchief began. “All four of our cities were visited two nights ago by Scourge attacks launched from floating ziggurats. All of these attacks were easily repelled. However, from what my agents tell me, all four of our cities suffered losses, or, rather, defections, to the Scourge. Do any of you possess any information on what brought this about?” he asked, glaring at Sylvanas. “Don’t look at me like that,” the banshee queen said threateningly. “The Forsaken had nothing to do with this. We were attacked as well and suffered our own losses.” “Lady, you know I don’t trust you. I’ll be frank about that,” Thrall said in response to her tone. “But you are the only one among us who actually knows how the Scourge functions.” “As you say, Thrall,” she muttered, her voice echoing through the room. “From what I have gathered, the Alliance was also attacked the same night we were. I would conjecture that they have been facing the same problems some of our people have faced. Tell me,” she said, turning to each of the living beings in the room, “have you heard rumors of a sudden madness overwhelming your people? It begins with strange dreams and visions, then passes into an inability to focus or concentrate, affecting the ability to perform the simplest of tasks. Lastly, the person goes mad, wandering about aimlessly and lost. Throughout any stage of the madness, the person may suffer fits that leave them catatonic, the fits tending to occur more and more frequently towards the end.” The other four in the room nodded. Such afflictions had never been unknown, but had become more common in the last year. Lor’themar and Rommath had discussed this malady afflicting some of the newly recruited blood elves, believing it to be related to their arcane addiction. 181


“We managed to hold on to a few of our madmen,” Sylvanas said slyly. “I questioned them myself. Gentlemen,” she said, dropping her tone, “this was no mere illness; this was Arthas marking some of ours for his own.” “That’s absurd,” Thrall muttered. “Who would believe the ramblings of an insane corpse?” “If you had seen the terror in their eyes, Warchief, you would believe.” Sylvanas replied respectfully. “The madness makes them susceptible to suggestion. Very susceptible. The ones we managed to hold back spoke of promises to be healed and made whole if they would just go to him. They described Arthas as if they had seen him. After more questioning, it turned out they had; in their dreams. He plays a long game,” she warned, “and he has infinite patience. Currently, he’s taken a relative handful from each of us. Perhaps he’s testing them, experimenting with new methods to force others to follow him. It would be just like that sick son of a bitch.” “Can you produce any of these ‘witnesses,’ Sylvanas?” Cairne asked, his deep voice rumbling through the room. “I thought you might need some convincing,” the Forsaken leader muttered as she glided to the door. Opening it and whispering to the guards, she waited. Moments later, members of her retinue entered, carrying a cloaked and hooded figure between them. Sylvanas roughly tore off the hood, revealing a young troll, his eyes glazed with madness, his blue skin mottled and filthy, his tusks broken and chipped. “He’s one of the only ones still alive after that night,” she replied, seeing the look of outrage on the Darkspear leader’s face. “I could have brought one of the elves, had any of them not chewed their tongues in half by the next evening.” Lor’themar looked as if he might be sick. “My own have simply taken to shambling about after that night, as mindless as the Scourge minions still plaguing our lands.” “It’s all well and good to discuss why this may have happened,” Lor’themar said after a long pause. “But what course of action should we take to guard against it, if it is him? Precious few of our counter-measures against the Plague did much good, if you remember, my Lady.” “I’m glad you asked that,” the banshee queen continued, ignoring a snort from Thrall that declared he still distrusted her. Well, let him, she thought to herself. She would achieve her own ends with our without his cooperation. “I would suggest that we put out word that this illness is actually a new form of the Plague. That should encourage people to report cases of it and make them willing to turn over their friends or family who are suffering to the Apothecaries. The Apothecaries will need to study new cases to see if they can develop a way to reverse the illness,” she explained, forestalling the protests she could see rising from the other leaders. “There will be riots over this, Lady!” Lor’themar spat. “The Cenarion Circle will want to get involved,” Cairne pointed out. “And, my people trust them more than they trust your Apothecaries, Lady Windrunner. Nothing I say will force the tauren to cooperate with you.” “The spirits will protect my people!” Vol’jin shouted. Sylvanas’s eyes gleamed as she prepared to argue her points with the others. Thrall put an end to it by pounding his fist on his desk. “Enough,” the Warchief said. “We’ll go along with your plan for now, Sylvanas. But I’ll be keeping my eye on your Apothecaries for results.” ~*~*~*~ Dar’ja, Zerith, and Callie ran as fast as they could down the streets of Silvermoon, the elves gasping for breath as they tried to keep in sight of Ger’alin. The man was a blur ahead 182


of them, visible only by the way that others leapt out of his way as he tore down the streets, racing towards the sanitarium. The flyers with Alayne’s description that they had been hanging in the bazaar littered the road behind him as they fluttered from his grasp. The four had been in the bazaar, still hoping for word of their friend when the news came out. None of them wanted to believe it but Ger’alin seemed to be taking it worst of them all, Zerith thought as he let go of Dar’ja’s arm and, in a fresh burst of speed, tried to catch up to the other man before he did something truly foolish. “I’ve got to see her!” Ger’alin was shouting as he crashed through the doors of the sanitarium, looking around the room wildly for some indication of where she would be. “Who are you here to see?” one of the novice priestess asked, shying back when Ger’alin stared at her, dumbfounded. “I’ll take care of him, Rilis,” Ma’iv said, as Zerith slammed through the doors a few seconds behind Ger’alin. “Young man,” the healer was saying sadly, “she’s gone and there’s nothing you can do about it.” “Let me see her!” Ger’alin yelled. “She’s gone,” the healer repeated. “We had to burn all of the bodies for fear of another outbreak once we knew what it was.” “No, you don’t understand,” the paladin shouted hoarsely. “Young man, I recognize you,” Ma’iv said patiently. “And I know who you’re looking for. You brought her to me, once before. Now, I’m telling you that your friend has passed on and you should be grateful that we figured it out before the Lich King could reanimate them all. You wouldn’t have wanted her to suffer that, would you?” Ger’alin seemed as if he was about to try to force his way into the wards behind the man. Zerith stood, his back against the wall by the doorway, staring at Ma’iv in horror. He lifted a hand when he saw the doors swing open again to admit Dar’ja and Callie. The look on his face must have said all he needed to them as the two women turned and, without a word, left. The priest stayed only a few moments longer, silently watching as the friend he had known to face any enemy with a smile collapsed before the one opponent no one could beat. With a worried glance at the Blood Knight kneeling on the floor in the middle of the room, Zerith left. ~*~*~*~ “Where’s Ger’alin?” Callie asked when Zerith dragged himself into the house. Dar’ja shot the Forsaken an irritated look as she ran to her husband. Zerith waved them both away, leaning against the door and letting his head bang back. Callie moved further off but Dar’ja ignored him and moved closer, throwing her arms around him and holding him while he cried. Callie, feeling uncomfortable around such displays of emotion, moved further back in the house, retreating to the living room, giving the couple their privacy. “I can’t believe it,” she muttered to herself. “Not the Plague again. Titans, Light, anything protect the world from that.” For long moments, the Forsaken paced in front of the fire place, torn between being grateful that Alayne had been spared the pain of slavery to the Scourge and mourning over the loss of someone she had grown to care about. And, it had been so sudden. Alayne vanished the night of the attack. They’d spent the past several days looking all over the city for the woman, fearful that she’d been hurt in the attack. Then, just as they had started to post signs offering a reward for word of her whereabouts, the Apothecaries, led by the Silvermoon city guards, had come through the square, making and posting their announcements concerning those who had fallen ill with this new version of the Plague.

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Callie turned back towards the front of the house in her pacing, halting when she saw Zerith and Dar’ja moving slowly towards the living room. Zerith collapsed on the couch, his head in his hands, while Dar’ja settled in next to him, stroking his hair and back and offering useless words of comfort. Callie stood in front of the fireplace, wishing she knew what to do. She jumped and yelped in fright when she heard the front door crash open. Looking down the hallway, she saw Ger’alin pass by and mount the stairs. For several minutes, she could hear him rummaging around in the upstairs rooms. Then, just as quickly as he’d gone up, he descended, casting a glance down towards the living room. Callie’s breath stuck in her throat at the dead expression on the fighter’s face. Only the burning rage in his eyes gave any signs that his soul remained within his body. For a moment, it seemed that he might enter the room. Then, firming his jaw, he hitched his shield on his back and turned and left the house. Without stopping to think whether or not he’d let her tag along, Callie hurried after him, leaving Zerith and Dar’ja to their grief. Outside, Ger’alin finished saddling his horse and, with a silent glance at Callie, mounted and rode off. With a sigh, Callie saddled her own and galloped after him.

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Chapter Eight: Winter of Sorrow, Spring of Hope

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pring melted into summer and summer faded to autumn. The first chill of winter danced on the late fall breeze, making Zerith glad to be returning home from his duties in the cathedral. He pulled his scarf tighter around his neck. Nodding to passerby respectfully as he continued home, he plucked at the stole he wore about his shoulders now, marking his rise in the ranks of the devotees of the Light left in Silvermoon. He wished he’d come into his powers earlier. Maybe then… With a sigh, he pushed the thoughts out of his mind. His sister was with the rest of his family and her own, safe in the Light. Wishing her back was just a form of selfishness. In the months since that first threatened return of the Plague, he’d come to terms with her death. A few of the elves who had known Alayne when she first returned to Quel’Thalas had held a small service in honor of her memory. Zerith wished he’d known where Ger’alin and Callie went off to so they could have come and said good-bye. Shaking his head, reminding himself that he and Dar’ja’s first anniversary was coming up soon, he opened the door to his home, a smile on his lips. As he strode into the living room, his smile stretched into a broad grin. Ger’alin sat on the couch, sipping a mug of tea. Callie sat in the armchair across the room from him, idly flipping one of her daggers in her hand while the two paladins conversed in a surprisingly civil manner. Leaning against the corner of the wall, Zerith stood quietly, not wanting to disturb the scene. The house hadn’t been this full since… “Ah, Zerith. The lady said you’d be home shortly,” Ger’alin said courteously, setting his mug on one of the small tables and standing, stretching out his hand in greeting. The priest cocked an eyebrow at the paladin, somewhat surprised at this rather formal greeting. “He’s picked up a lot of bad habits out in the world,” Callie laughed, sheathing her dagger and standing up to throw her arms around the priest’s neck. “Lucky and I try to keep him reasonably ‘Ger’alin,’ though.” “What brings you back to town, old friend?” Zerith asked, gripping the other man’s forearm and clapping him on the shoulder. “Sit back down, please. I hope you’re both planning to stay a while. This house could use some company.” “Actually, they’ve come back into town to see if we want to leave with them,” Dar’ja said, an edge to her voice that Zerith knew meant she wanted to discuss this with him in private before he gave an answer. “They’ve heard the most fascinating rumors…” “I assure you, good mistress,” Ger’alin said in that maddening formality, “they are more than just mere rumors. Lord Lor’themar himself confirmed the last of my suspicions just this morning. The Warchief, Thrall, has approved my proposal. Therefore, not only do I have the blessing of the government of Silvermoon, I have the personal seal of approval of the leader of the Horde. You can hardly refuse my most reasonable request with that knowledge, can you?” “Ger’alin, you sound like an ass,” Callie laughed. “Quit dancing around the point and ask what you came here to ask him.” “Thank you, my dear,” Ger’alin said rigidly as he turned to Zerith. “With the approval of the aforementioned leaders, I have been granted permission to gather the Disorder of 185


Azeroth for an urgent mission into Northrend. I would like to ask you to accompany me. Dar’ja may come as well; we can always use skilled healers.” “Northrend? Are you mad? Is this some kind of a prank, Callie?” Zerith asked, glaring at the woman warily. “It’s got all the makings of one of your practical jokes. Ger’alin acting like…someone that’s not Ger’alin, asking me to come along to the most Light-forsaken place on this planet just as calmly as asking for a cup of flour.” “I swear, this is no prank,” Callie said. “I told you, he’s picked up bad habits out in the world. One of them is not explaining to people why he wants them to follow him to the Lich King’s footstool,” she glared at Ger’alin, kicking him lightly on the ankle. “Sit down, Zerith,” she said gently, a sad smile warming her undead features. “This wasn’t easy for either of us to learn either, but you’ve got to know that…” “That’s enough!” Dar’ja shouted, jumping to her feet and grabbing her husband’s hand. Without another word, she dragged him out of the living room and up the stairs to their bed room, slamming the door behind her and blocking it with her own body. “Just stay here,” she gasped, her eyes wide with fright. “Stay here while I throw them out. You’ll never have to see them again.” “Wait, what is it?” he asked, confused. “Look, if it’s one of their jokes, well, I could use a good laugh.” “It’s not one of their jokes, Zerith. It’s trash and lies; that’s what it is and they’re both mad to believe it. Just don’t listen to them. Let me go show them out before they can hurt you.” “Dar’ja, what is it that you don’t want me to hear?” “No, I won’t do that to you, my love,” she said gently. “I’ll just go see them out now. Stay here, please?” Dar’ja had turned and opened the door. With a sigh, Zerith reached over her head and shoved it shut before she could get out. Putting his hands on her shoulders, he pulled her away from the door and gently sat her down on the bed. Sitting next to her, he looked her in the face and asked again, “What is it that you don’t want me to hear?” “Please, Zerith, don’t make me hurt you. Don’t let them hurt you either.” “Dar’ja, this is the kind of attempted diversion I expected from Alayne before she…” his breath caught in his throat at the guilty start that made his wife jump. “All right,” he sighed, “what does this have to do with Alayne?” ~*~*~*~ Zerith stalked down the stairs and into the living room. The little that Dar’ja had told him had him angrier than he’d been in over a year. Someone was lying to him and he intended to get to the bottom of it tonight if he had to tear apart the two friends sitting downstairs with his bare hands. “You have five minutes,” the priest said as he threw himself into the empty chair opposite Callie. “Make it good.” Ger’alin opened his mouth to launch into the tale but Callie, seeing the look on Zerith’s face, raised her hand, forestalling him. “Gerry,” she said lightly, forcing a smile on her face, “go and check our rooms at the inn, would you? And make sure the stable boys are taking good care of Lucky.” Ger’alin scowled at the undead but she met his look blandly. With a muttered oath, he rose and stormed from the house. Callie sighed in relief, the false cheer she’d adopted draining from her. “I didn’t want to come here,” she told Zerith baldly. “But it’s been all I could do just to stop him from setting sail to Northrend on his own ever since we ran across an old friend of yours, and Alayne’s, Ber’lon.”

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“That’s insane. Ber’lon died the night of the Scourge invasion, just like all of the others infected with the Plague.” “Oh, I know. But Ger’alin’s…well, he’s Ger’alin. What more can I say? He’s gotten this crazy idea that Alayne is actually still alive, being held captive by the Scourge up in Northrend. I’ve been trying to talk sense into him for over a month now, trying to distract him with all manner of quests, battles, even pretty maids until…well, let’s not get into that. I’ve been shouted at enough recently. A little over a month ago, someone calling himself ‘Ber’lon’ crossed our path in Un’Goro. Ger’alin is convinced that…” “You don’t need to say anymore,” Zerith sighed. “I see where this is going. Several people have appeared in Silvermoon recently, claiming to be those who died the night of the Scourge invasion. Lord Lor’themar has ordered them locked up in the dungeons, afraid that it’s another manifestation of the Plague. I’ve spent some time with them myself. They’re convincing, but they’re traitors, Callie. No doubt Arthas has found passable look-alikes amongst those who have given in to despair and joined the Scourge. It’s just another one of his feints to try to shake our resolve.” “Well, maybe you can convince Ger’alin of that. I’ve been trying for weeks now to set him off this mad plan of his, but he won’t listen. The others aren’t any help; he’s rounded up everyone who flocked to your cause last year and has them all hyped up and eager, raring to go to Northrend. Zerith, don’t glare at me like that. I know she’s been dead these past ten months and more. And, even if she had been taken captive, she would have either died a prisoner or been killed. Alayne would never join the Scourge, no matter how crazy she was. But, Ger’alin is convinced she’s up there, pining away, waiting for him to ride in like some knight out of a children’s tale and rescue her. He’s been absolutely frenetic these last weeks, riding from one capital to another, arranging meetings, gathering information, planning campaigns. I brought him here hoping that either you could talk him out of it or, at the least, to give you a chance to see him one last time. I think he means to get himself killed this time; not that he hasn’t been trying before now. Well, there,” she said, standing up from her seat, “I’ve told you how it is. I’ll go back and tell him that you’re not coming and we’ll be out of here in a few days.” Zerith watched the woman over steepled fingers. Finally, he sighed. “We’ll come with you,” the priest said softly. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin listened intently, not daring to move until he was certain that the whole house was asleep. His heart had not stopped pounding with joy since Callie told him to come back to Zerith’s house and stay the night in his old room. He hadn’t even really heard her say that the priest had agreed to come north with them. He hadn’t been able to hear anything over the blood pounding in his ears. Hearing snoring from the other room, he decided that it was worth the risk. Zerith had loved her in his own way as well; surely he would understand if he came across Ger’alin. Tossing back the quilt, Ger’alin rose and tiptoed down the hallway, careful not to let his armor clank or to make the slightest sound. Pushing open the door to what had been her room, he crept in, letting it shut behind him. He glanced around in irritation. They had moved her things. “Well, of course,” he said ruefully to himself, “they thought she was dead. Now that they know better, I’m sure they’ll put it all back.” Kneeling down before the bed she had once slept in, he lay his head on the quilts and closed his eyes, imagining that he could still catch a scent of her after all this time. With a blissful smile, he fell into a peaceful slumber, the first he had had in almost a year, and dreamed dreams of their reunion. 187


~*~*~*~ The woman gripped the windowsill tightly, feeling a flutter in the pit of her stomach at the thought of being so high above the ground. Forcing it away, she watched the land pass beneath them in silence. Below her lay the snowy reaches of Northrend, her true homeland. She reached up and removed her helm, leaning out the window to inhale the sharp, icy air. Turning back to face the room, she smiled, a cold smile that did not warm her eyes. Off to one side stood the man who had once been a sergeant in the Silvermoon guard force. His reputation had only grown since his death and resurrection into the ranks of the Scourge. It had been he who had finally convinced her of the truth her master revealed to her. Letting the smile slip from her face –she was no longer accustomed to such displays – she stared out the window once again, remembering her first nights in the ziggurat and the clarity they had brought. She’d been ill. She could recall that easily. An illness brought on her by those she thought loved her, by those she had called ‘brother’ and ‘friend.’ It had sapped her, weakening her mind, turning her into a brainless, witless child. But then, she had been a brainless, witless child crying for her father in the night. Her mouth twisted in distaste as she remembered her confusion, her frantic attempts to control that which needed no control. Her father had shown her the way. No longer did the woman waste her time wrenching demons to serve her; instead, she wielded death with her own hands. She could feel the fever within her chilling, freezing her blood as she unslung the runeblade from her back and let it flash, reflecting the light of the moon while she thought back to that first night… ~*~*~*~ The room was dark, cool, and restful to her fevered eyes. Letting herself relax on the cold stone slab covered lightly with straw, the woman exulted in actuallybeing able to think again. The madness that had gripped her these past months was lifting. The dark robed priests had cured her. With a tired smile, she raised a hand and, letting the sweet ecstasy of magic course through her, whispered the beginnings of a spell. She could feel the Nether twist in response to her summons and had to restrain herself from laughing in delight when a dark flame appeared, dancing merrily before her face. The door to her room creaked open. A dark robed, pasty-faced human glided over to her bed side and, neither gently nor roughly, forced a foul-tasting concoction down her throat. Her joy was not dulled at all by the treatment; indeed, happiness soared within her. “Bless you,” she murmured to her caretaker. “How can I ever repay you?” “Serve the Master,” was the human’s mirthful reply. “And who is your master?” the woman asked, pushing herself up to sit on the slab. “I am, little one,” replied a familiar voice. A breeze blew through the room and, her jaw dropping in shock, the woman saw the phantasm of a man she’d vowed to fight with all her strength. “Calm yourself, little one,” the apparition laughed. “Or would you seek to harm the one who cured you of the madness your own people inflicted upon you?” “You’re lying!” the woman screamed in terror. “Am I?” the ghostly figure asked, still chuckling. “Then tell me where the lie is, my child. You returned to your homeland, hoping to be part of the rebuilding. Almost immediately, you began to be plagued by dreams of me. Yes, young one, it was I. I was trying to reach you; to warn you against the path your leaders were forcing you down. Then, as you continued to draw upon the fel powers to feed your addiction to the arcane, the dreams became worse. Disjointed, fragmented, and so painful you began to stay awake the night 188


long. Then, instead of leaving you alone, the dreams began to chase you during the daylight hours.” “Stop it,” the woman moaned, covering her ears with shaking hands. “I won’t listen to you.” “You saw yourself bringing ruin to those around you. You saw yourself going mad and killing them all. Eventually, you did turn in your madness. You turned and attacked them, believing them to be your enemies. And they were, young one. They were your enemies!” “Please!” she shrieked. “Very well, child,” the figure sighed. “If you cannot see that I have spared you all that; that I have taken you from what you fear and given you back your health, then you must strike me down. However…those who follow me will try to stop you. Do you think you could cut down your own father to strike at me?” “My father?” the woman gasped, looking up at the man’s face in rage. “Youkilled my father!” “Did I? Then explain this, my child.” The ghostly figure wavered, vanishing into mist. The door to her room creaked open once again. Emerging from the darkened corridor was an elven man, tall and hooded, a quiver hanging at his hip and his bow slung across his back. A short sword hung opposite the quiver, housed in a sheath that the woman knew from her earliest days of childhood. She shrank back against the wall, a wordless keen issuing from her throat. The elf walked slowly across the room, stopping when he was in the midst of it. Lifting his hands to the hood hiding his face, he pushed it back and smiled down at the woman. Moving again, he sat down next to her and pulled her onto his lap, holding her as he had when she was just a little girl. “Papa?” she asked in horrified awe, lifting her head to stare at the ghastly familiar face. “My little Alayne,” the elf who had once been Tal’ar whispered as he smiled at his daughter. “You look just like your mother.” ~*~*~*~ “They came for me once before, traitor Prince,” Alayne said coldly when next the apparition appeared before her. “My friends will come for me again.” “No, my child, they won’t,” the apparition said, sounding genuinely amused. “Your ‘friends’ are the ones who infected you; they are the ones who brought you to the brink of insanity.” “You’re lying.” “Then show me the lie. Were you not, as a child, a very talented mage? After the destruction of the Sunwell, did you not become a talented warlock? Advancing more quickly through the ranks than your teachers believed possible? As you advanced, did you not notice that your energy was being sapped? That as your friends grew stronger and more powerful, you grew sicker and weaker?” “You…you’re…” “They were feeding off you, little one. Your government marked out the strongest, the brightest, the most talented, and drew your own life-forces away to feed the others. Do you really believe that Kael found a new, completely safe, reliable font of magic? He found nothing more than the ability to leech off of others to satiate his own hunger. Those of you strong enough to tap the very essence of the Legion were taught to do so while others tapped your souls. You were the conduit through which they fed; the filter that absorbed the

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corruption – driving you mad in the process – while giving them access to pure arcane energy.” “They would never…” “They would because their lust for the arcane is strong, insatiable. So many of your people were drained; so many fell into madness and despair because of it.” “You…but…it can’t be true!” “The truth is always hard to bear. You were being sacrificed so that others could gain the power that you house in your soul. I have freed you from that. I have saved you from the madness that their vampirism was causing you. In return, all I ask is that you serve me faithfully, as does your father.” “I will never serve the Scourge! I hate them!” “Does that include me, Alayne?” her father asked gently. Looking through the floating apparition, Alayne could see the dark ranger who was her father. His face was drawn with sorrow and grief. “Well, my daughter?” “I…no…Papa, forgive me!” she cried as she threw herself at her father, flinging her arms around him and sobbing into his chest in confusion, frustration, and fear. “Talk to her, Tal’ar,” the apparition said gently as it began to fade away. “See if you can explain the truth to her.” ~*~*~*~ “They’re not coming, are they?” Alayne asked dully. She had lost count of the weeks since their arrival in Northrend. Only a few among the once-captive remained in the deep caverns. The others had accepted the truth and gone above to train and to serve. “They are not,” Tal’ar said, his voice harsh and gentle at the same time. “Surely you didn’t expect them to? They took what they wanted from you and then they threw you away.” “But…Zerith…he wouldn’t…he couldn’t. And not Ger’alin and Callie…,” she protested weakly. “They are not your family, my daughter. They do not love you.” “But we…” “If they loved you, Alayne, would they have left you in madness? Wouldn’t they have stopped drawing your precious life away and let you recover your strength? Instead, they used you, as brutally as anyone has ever been used. And when you could serve them no more; when you were utterly spent, they abandoned you! That is the truth. You must see it, now!” It is the truth. Papa would not lie to me... “But they…” They betrayed us. They betrayed me! After all I did for them; after all I wrought…they betrayed me and left me for dead! “They wouldn’t…” Then where are they, Alayne? Why have they left us here? Everyone has lied to us! Lor’themar, Sylvanas, Thrall, Zerith, Ger’alin, Jez’ral…all of them! Only Papa and Arthas have told us the truth! We must serve! I will serve! Arthas has given me my father back! MY FATHER! “I swore…,” she said, rubbing her palm, feeling the scar from the day she’d taken Zerith as her brother. You sniveling wretch! Zerith? You still think of him? If he had loved you, if he had been your brother in truth, would he have drained you? Wouldn’t he have healed you instead of killing you by inches? He is not our family! Papa is!

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Tal’ar watched, his bloodless lips quirking into a smile. His daughter, who looked so like her mother, stood before him, her head bowed and her eyes vacant as she made the last, futile struggle to hold on to those who had abandoned her. He had watched her these past weeks and knew that the battle would soon be over and, as the Lich King had promised, she would be by his side, forever. Tal’ar himself had once fought the same fight, struggling against the Lich King until, finally, he saw that he was one of his King’s subjects and that his disloyalty would earn him punishment while loyalty…loyalty would gain him the world. When she lifted her head and stared into his eyes, Tal’ar sighed. “Alayne,” he began. “Call me that no longer, Sergeant Dawnrunner,” the woman said formally, distantly. “For I am Alayne no longer…” Deep within her, buried beneath the chains of despair that had clung to her for long weeks, Alayne screamed in disbelief as Tal’ar’s daughter took control and locked her away behind the very walls she had built to protect herself. ~*~*~*~ “You are distracted, my daughter,” Tal’ar laughed. “I’m not,” she protested, picking herself up off the ground. “I’m inexperienced.” “Inexperienced? A child could have seen that attack coming.” “Try it again,” she muttered, picking her sword up off the ground. “No,” he said. “Not until the distraction is gone.” “What do you mean?” “You hear her voice still.” “I do,” the woman muttered. “Titans save me, I do.” “You have locked her under chain in a dark corner of your mind. You ignore her. You refuse to listen to her. But still, you hear her. I can tell.” “Well, how do I get her to shut up? She cries, gibbering and whining, that her ‘friends’ would never hurt her. That everyone here is lying. She refuses to accept the simple truth! She tries to force her way into my thoughts whenever I’m working the forms with you or one of the others. At night, I find myself dreaming her dreams. Dreams of love, adventure, magic…” “You can never silence her. You must learn to live with her but without her distractions.” “How do I do that?” “You must accept the side of you which you fight. Two natures war within you. One from me; one from your mother. Embrace them both, reconcile them both, and you will finally master yourself. Then you will be more powerful than you have ever dreamed.” “What do you mean by that? Accept her? With her crying and moaning? I’d sooner wish to be back with Mother being berated for not being ladylike enough to suit her.” “You know the answer, my daughter. It is within you. Now, clear your mind and begin again.” ~*~*~*~ Tal’ar’s daughter picked up the blade that would become her own. It felt icy, as chill as a decades-old grave, even though it had only just been quenched from the forging. The blade was icy blue, glittering silver in the cold light of the northern sun. Hefting it, letting it flow through the forms she knew so well, she smiled. It was perfect, if incomplete. I will not do this. “You will. You have no choice.” 191


Clearing her mind, Tal’ar’s daughter picked up the graver and began to carve the runes into the blade. Letting her soul flow from her heart, to her hands, and into the blade, she drew the runes that would enhance her dexterity, lend her the strength of steel, and bring the cold, darkness of northern nights upon her enemies. For hours she worked, carving, forcing the part of her that had been a warlock into the blade. Finally, she finished, hefting the blade. Smiling, she danced through the forms, stopping mid-way to frown as the blade seemed to take on a life of its own, twisting in her grip. Even separated and cut off, her other half fought to regain control, to take back over, to betray the only person who had ever cared enough to fight for her instead of destroying her. “I will master you yet,” she promised. Closing her eyes, she listened intently, waiting for the response. All that met her mind was silence. Blessed, peaceful silence. Now, she just had to learn to control the double-edged blade. ~*~*~*~ The rest of her training had been merely expanding upon what she already knew. The necromancers taught her avenues to power. She had disdained much of their teaching, turning her back on magic altogether in favor of cold, hard steel. She looked forward to seeing her old ‘friends’ and ‘teachers’ again. Gripping the hilt of her blade firmly, ignoring the way it twisted in her hand, she let the cold rage wash over her as she recalled how she had been tricked and betrayed, her own addiction used against her by those she had once sworn to protect. Her ‘friends’ had helped in that goal, letting her vitality be sapped away and leaving her to drift into madness. They would never…they loved me…they would never hurt me! the other woman protested weakly, faintly, secure in her prison house. “Be quiet, you,” Tal’ar’s daughter muttered. “If they’d loved you, why didn’t they come for you? Answer that!” The other woman sighed, unable to respond. “They betrayed me. They were killing me. I hate them!” the death knight muttered, reaching down and squelching the rising tide heating her blood as she saw the blood-red and gleaming white spires of Silvermoon draw near. “Land in sight,” one of the necromancers said as he gazed through a telescope. “We should be over Tirisfal within the hour.” The woman lifted and resettled the helm over her face. The first mission was to return the rebellious sheep to the Lich King’s flock. She looked forward to helping to bring Sylvanas back where she belonged. Slamming a mental fist on the table in her mind, she told herself she was not hoping to see Callie or the others at all. ~*~*~*~ Zerith awoke, his heart pounding in his ears. Dar’ja had also bolted upright, glancing around for the cause of the noise. The alarm bells of Silvermoon thundered through the night air. Without a word, the two dressed quickly and hurried out into the hall. Ger’alin stood ahead of them, striding out of Alayne’s old room, his sword in his hand. “Are we under attack?” he called out down the stairs. “Not as far as I can tell,” Callie shouted back from the front door. “I’ll run on ahead to see what’s going on.” The three elves followed the Forsaken into the streets. “Oh no,” Ger’alin groaned when he looked up to see the ziggurat passing over the city. “To the walls!” he shouted, running towards one of the gates that would allow him to gain access to the upper levels of the walls. Archers were already in position, bows drawn, should the floating citadel come 192


within range. Zerith stood in the streets, watching the sky in frustration, waiting for the attack to begin. The minutes crawled by as the citadel drifted high over the city and, without stopping, turned southwest, leaving Silvermoon unmolested. The watchers and fighters stood, frozen, watching and waiting for the next attack. The hours ticked by and no further sign. Finally, just as dawn was beginning to lighten the night sky, runners burst out from Sunfury Spire, hurrying down the streets, stopping to whisper hushed orders to soldiers, guards, and Blood Knights. Zerith and Dar’ja watched as Ger’alin hurried back down the stairs from the upper reaches of the walls and, whispering something to Callie, went sprinting off towards Sunfury Spire. “What’s going on?” Zerith asked Callie before she could run off. “Undercity’s under attack,” the woman said calmly. “Ger’alin wants us to go there now and help reinforce the defenses.” “Well, what are we waiting for?” Zerith said as he hiked his robes and began to run for the Spire. “Let’s get going!” ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin clapped Tau’re on the shoulder as the pair raced up the ruins of the courtyard in Undercity. The ziggurat hung over the city, ropes dangling from it where some of the Deathguards had managed to hoist themselves up in hopes of gaining control of the citadel. Grabbing one of them, Ger’alin hoisted himself up, pulling himself hand-over-hand along the rope, climbing towards the citadel. He swung his weight, making the rope sway, to dodge the arrows that the archers above him were firing down. As he neared the port leading into the floating monstrosity, he felt the rope vibrating as if someone ahead were trying to pull it loose from the structure. Gathering himself for a leap, he dove into the citadel as the rope gave way, dropping into the courtyard below. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Tau’re pulling himself up over the wall, knocking away Scourge rangers with his meaty fists as he hauled himself over. In the courtyard below, Zerith, Callie, and Dar’ja watched helplessly as the remaining ropes were cut away and flung down by the ziggurat’s defenders. None of them wanted to leave Ger’alin to face the Scourge alone, but none of them could make their way up there now. Turning, they ran below, leaving the Blood Knight to his own devices for the moment. The Undercity guards seemed to be rallying and repulsing the attackers. Callie ran off towards the Apothocarium where the last of the fighting seemed to be contained. Skeletal minions, zombies, necromancers, and armored warriors held off the Forsaken and sin’dorei fighters while they wrecked the Apothocarium, breaking beakers, smashing open crates of reagents, and making a mess of the Royal Apothecaries’ Society’s work. The attack seemed targeted on that with little other force given to the other areas of the city. Callie and Dar’ja shoved forward, daggers and sword flashing as they joined in the battle against the Scourge. Zerith kept his distance, his eyes scanning the crowd while he offered up prayers for healing and the occasional blast of the Light against the foul minions of the Lich King. After an eternity, the last of the undead fell to the combined forces of Undercity and Silvermoon’s volunteers. Backing away from the wreck that had been the Apothocarium, Zerith and the others spotted Davril in the distance. “Come on,” the Forsaken mage shouted to them. “The rest of them are already up!” Once the three were close enough, the mage lifted his voice in an incantation and the wings of magic sped them on their way. ~*~*~*~ 193


The man who had once been Tal’ar grunted. The attack was failing. The Banshee Queen must have suspected something. Sylvanas had ever been one to read her enemy’s mind and know what he planned before he himself realized it. That was why she had to be retaken; that was why she was such a danger, left alone. “They are coming,” the woman who had been his daughter said, her voice as lifeless as winter’s chill. She and the others were angry, upset at being held back from the attack on the city. Now that she had the chance to prove herself, she sound almost…disappointed. Tal’ar stared at her, wondering if she would be able to do this and fearing to see her destroyed. The Lich King had not been certain at all about letting these experimental death knights join the attack but one raided one’s enemies with the troops one had. Pointing, she drew his attention away from her and to a handful of sin’dorei, tauren, and Forsaken who had managed to either climb to the citadel or escape their captors. With a nod, Tal’ar fell back, hiding himself in the shadows, waiting. At least they would not be returning completely empty-handed. Perhaps he could avenge his daughter’s torment without angering his master. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin ran through the citadel, his sword ready and his shield in front of him, looking for an enemy to fight. Thus far, he’d found only a few Scourge archers, a banshee, and a gibbering ghoul. The ziggurat seemed to be empty and abandoned, giving the impression that the Scourge’s main force had jumped to Undercity. “Arthas is no fool,” Ger’alin muttered to himself as he passed through another empty room. Finding himself against a blank wall, he cursed and turned around. He headed back out the way he’d come. Glancing out of a window, he could see others gathering in the courtyard below. Zerith spotted him through the window and pointed up, saying something that directed the others to begin heading in Ger’alin’s direction. The sin’dorei fighter decided to stay where he was, for now, and let the others catch up to him. After a few moments, he heard his friends’ steps echoing through the twisting stairwells as they ran to join him. Placing himself next to the door, his back to the passage they would enter from, he scanned the rest of the room. He thought he heard movement further in the citadel. Schooling himself to patience, he waited, not moving until he saw Zerith, Dar’ja, and Callie leading the crowds up the stairs and into the room. Just as the first dozen or so entered the room, the door slammed shut. Ger’alin turned back to see skeletal mages, dark rangers, and even a few of these so-called ‘death knights’ entering from deeper within the keep. “I should have known this was a trap,” he muttered as he raised his sword and ran to meet them. ~*~*~*~ Tal’ar’s daughter smiled behind her helm. She could hear her master’s orders moving gently through her mind, his touch as soft and mild as that of a lover’s caress. In the room before her stood those who had abandoned her to madness and helplessness. She raised her sword and advanced on them, her will utterly surrendered to her savior’s voice as he whispered, “Bring them to me.” She felt the rising joy of combat long-abated warm her blood as she nodded in acceptance of the order. She would prove herself yet; she would avenge herself against those who had betrayed and abandoned her. Deep within, the woman who was still and always would be Alayne screamed in horror as she struggled against the chains she herself had forged. ~*~*~*~ 194


Zerith hung back, letting Dar’ja and Callie run after Ger’alin as he engaged the Scourge minions before they could cross the room. Not giving the skeletal magi a chance to cast their deadly spells, the three, followed quickly by others, smashed into them, swords, daggers, staves, and maces shattering the Scourge. The rangers retreated into the corridor, moving into the next room, letting the death knights act as their buffer while they put distance between themselves and the living. Just as the fighters finished off the last of the undead minions and wheeled to advance on the dread fighters, two of them lifted their hands, muttering the words of necromancy. Zerith prepared his own spells as he saw the battered remnants of the Scourge shift and reassemble themselves to take the fighting force from behind. ~*~*~*~ You will not do this, the woman who was Alayne shouted inside her skull. That’s Ger’alin! And Callie and Dar’ja! For the love of all that is holy, Zerith’s there too! Stop! We swore to protect them, once, remember? The other woman, the one directing her limbs ignored her, her will that of the Lich King’s. She had grown adept at ignoring the woman who still thought of herself as the sin’dorei warlock, Alayne. Tightening her grip, she forced her unwilling blade to dance in the moonlight as she moved forward, laughing whenever Alayne screamed as she cut through those who had left her in madness. Across the room, Callie hissed in frustration as she turned her back on the blackplated knights and launched an attack against the reassembled zombies. Ignoring their bites and scratches, she swung in with her fists and daggers, desperately trying to put them out of the fight. Tau’re joined her, picking up skeletons in his mighty hands and cracking them over his knee. Using his horns as she used her daggers, he bore in and gored the Scourge, keeping them at bay and away from the other fighters. As the fight continued, something in the way one of the death knights moved caught Ger’alin’s attention. Letting his shield catch the blows from the knight he was fighting, he stared at the lone female knight. Those motions, that fluid grace, even the way she held her sword struck him as eerily familiar. Shoving his way through the fighting towards her, he began to push her out of the fray, smiling as his blade met hers in a flurry of attack. ~*~*~*~ No! Alayne shrieked as the woman engaged Ger’alin, meeting him stroke for stroke. No! Listen to me! “They betrayed me! Leave me be, you foolish woman. I will take from them what they tried to steal from me once before!” We’ll see about that, Alayne muttered as she watched for an opening, twisting and refusing to cooperate as best she could. ~*~*~*~ Dar’ja tried to keep an eye on her husband while dodging the blade of one of the death knights. Her sword was already dripping blood from one of his fellows. She was also trying to pay attention to the archers who had backed themselves into the hallway. Tears of frustration threatened to blur her vision as she tried to force an opening in her enemy’s guard

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that would let her blade slash through. This was madness. She was never going to forgive Ger’alin for getting her and Zerith into this insanity. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin laughed, deaf to the cries of friend and foe alike. The searing joy of pure combat burned through him, bringing life to his eyes and face as he continued to spar against the woman. She met him, blade to blade, sparks flashing as she pushed him back across the room. He could hear his laughter echoing through the halls as he gave ground. Seeing an opening in her defense, he bore in, knocking her off her feet and pinning her to the ground before she could grab her fallen sword. Holding her arms behind her back with one hand and a knee, he grasped the bottom of her helm, wrenching it off and throwing it across the room. He was stunned when long, delicate elven ears showed through her honey-colored hair, cut in a style that, though ragged, seemed painfully familiar. “No,” he muttered. “No.” Letting go of her hands and grabbing her shoulders, he spun her around to peer into her face. He could feel the blood draining from his own face, his jaw dropping open, and his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest when a stranger glared at him from behind Alayne’s eyes. ~*~*~*~ Ger’alin released Alayne, jerking his hands away as if his fingers had been burnt. The woman glared at him, rage burning in her eyes as she cast about for her sword. The sword kept slipping from her nerveless grasp, as if it was refusing to let her wield it any longer. She grunted, scrambling after it. Those gathered around looked on in shock and surprise, confused to see one who had been of their number fighting against them. Zerith felt light-headed, as if he might faint; his mind sought to cast away the pain that the sight of Alayne, alive, and a death knight, wrought on his heart. “She hates the Scourge…why…what is going on here?” he asked breathlessly as the woman crawled across the floor, trying desperately to pick up her sword. Smiling triumphantly when she grabbed it with both hands, her face went slack, her eyes widening in shock and horror as she lifted it and stared at it. No more, the sin’dorei warlock’s voice said, ringing through her skull. “They betrayed me!” Tal’ar’s daughter screamed. “How can you still care for them, fool woman!” I see now…I never should have fought you, Tal’ar’s daughter. I am you; you are me, whether I want to accept it or not. Whether I like it or not. I will fight you no longer; I will give you power over me no longer. Papa gave me the key…and now I will free myself from the prison I have built. “They betrayed you and left you for dead! Mad, mindless, and dying! I saved us! I saved them! I killed, I hated, I hurt for them and they betrayed me! Their lives are mine to take as they tried to steal my own from me!” “Who is she talking to?” Callie asked. The battle was winding down; the necromancers slain, the Scourge minions had no one to raise them back up when they fell. Only the death knights in the room and the archers in the corridor remained. The death knights, save for Alayne, stood stock-still, shaking their heads, some casting away their helms to reveal faces familiar to others in the room. Horrified gasps erupted from the fighters as several of the death knights threw down their weapons and began shrieking, their screams echoing through the keep like the wail of a soul damned beyond hope of salvation. In the midst of it all, Alayne knelt, staring at the sword in her hands as if arguing with it.

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I would have given them my life willingly if they had need of it. I still will. It is time to rest, Tal’ar’s daughter. Let us be the woman we were born to be. “No!” she shrieked, dropping her sword and raising her hands to her face. “You will not hand me over to them! I will not betray the master who returned my….,” she trailed off, feeling the sin’dorei warlock reaching out and gently, but firmly, regaining control. “Fool...you love those who abandoned you?” Whatever their reasons, whether they return my love or not, I love them and I will protect them. Come now, rest until you are needed, my brave, head-strong, overbearing, fierce self. This battle is no longer yours to fight alone. It is ours. It is mine. I will fight to hide you no more; I will fight myself no longer. Tal’ar’s daughter shivered, shaking as she felt the self-righteousness fade from her, the conviction that what she was doing was right and just. “But Papa,” she whispered, closing her eyes. She felt the warlock gently brush against her soul, her touch gentle and reassuring. Papa will join me…or I will face the consequences. But I will harm the others no longer. Alayne shook her head, clearing it and letting the haze evaporate from her eyes as she regained control of herself, feeling the part of her soul she’d suppressed, the part of her that her mother had hated and had taught her to hate, flow and merge with the part of her she’d always thought of as her true self, the self acceptable to her demanding mother; the part that didn’t frighten others with its strong emotions. She grunted as she pushed herself to her feet, feeling a sliver of her soul remaining locked within the runeblade. Walking slowly, as if unaccustomed to controlling her limbs again, she limped towards Zerith, tears filling her eyes. He stared at her, first in horror and dread then, seeing that she would not attack, with forgiveness and love. She stopped a foot from him, a noise from the corridor making her ear twitch. Turning her head, she saw the archers drawing back their bows. Without another thought, she ran down the hallway, her sword slashing as she cut through the ranks of those who had been her allies. She ignored the arrows striking her, using her body to block the hallway, to force the dark rangers to shoot her while denying them the opening to launch their bolts at the others. “Alayne!” she heard Zerith and Ger’alin shout she heard their feet pounding down the corridor as they rushed after her. Snarling, she fought on, hacking and boring in relentlessly until only one archer remained. The man who had been Tal’ar held an arrow knocked and drawn, pointed at his daughter. “Don’t do this,” she pleaded with him, gripping the doorway he’d backed through with her hands and blocking it with her feet. “Don’t make me do this. You can turn your back on him as I have. You could join the Dark Lady. You could be free! Don’t believe his lies anymore! He’s tricked us both, using that which we hold most dear as a knife against our throats. Please, don’t do this!” Tal’ar sighed. She had turned on him. Choosing those who would kill her over her own father. Part of him felt warmed by it, seeing the determination in her eyes. The same determination that he had felt, holding the wall against the invaders, praying that there would be something for his wife and daughter to come back to. Part of him began to shift, his eyes opening and his spirit flowing within him. Alayne held her breath, praying, seeing his eyes light with life, with independence. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the light was ruthlessly crushed out. Tal’ar’s eyes went dark. Alayne hung her head in defeat and sorrow. Behind her, Zerith and Ger’alin struggled, trying to push their way into the room. Without taking her eyes from the bolt, Alayne kicked, sending the pair stumbling back as she ran into the room, her sword at the ready, prepared to block or stop whatever her father tried. “Don’t make me…” she pleaded. Tal’ar smiled, a cold smile, when she looked surprised as he sprinted away, getting a clear view of the doorway she’d tried to block. One of the men, a priest, managed to enter the room. Tal’ar turned his bow on the man and prepared to loose… 197


“Zerith no!” she screamed, seeing Tal’ar turn his aim. Sprinting, shoving off the floor with her feet, Alayne sailed through the air, throwing her sword at her father just as his arrow left the bow, its point flying towards the space where Zerith had been but Alayne now was. Her sword wheeled, spinning hilt over blade, burying itself in Tal’ar’s chest just as his arrow drove through her armor, flesh, and bone to stick out of her back. “Alayne!” Ger’alin shouted, running to catch her before she hit the ground. Zerith picked himself up and turned, looking horrified at the sight of his sister smiling, her eyes shining, the fletching of the arrow still quivering above her chest. “Free,” she sighed, feeling the love she had almost forgotten warm her even as her heart broke at what she had done, “I’m free.” Across the room, the runeblade she’d forged in rage, despair, and abandonment, shattered. ~*~*~*~ It was a silent and morose group that teleported out of the floating Scourge citadel. They carried with them their wounded, their dead, and their prisoners. The Apothecaries and healers scuttled about, offering healing to those who needed it or going with the Deathguards to escort the death knight prisoners to where they could be investigated and interrogated. None of the former servants of Arthas gave any trouble; most still wept openly, shaking their heads as if to clear them and muttering self-castigations. One death knight had to be led by the hand; he had clawed his eyes out of his face. Lord Lor’themar wove through the crowd, stopping to speak a few words of congratulations or commiseration with the members of the Disorder of Azeroth. Up ahead, he could see Ger’alin and Zerith kneeling beside one of their wounded fellows. Striding over to them, he gasped when he saw the face of the comrade they were tending. Turning, he tried to get away before he was noticed. “You knew about this?” Zerith asked calmly. He’d seen the man approaching. “No, I didn’t,” Lor’themar replied smoothly. “I thought she was dead.” “I find that…hard to believe,” Ger’alin growled, his back to his Regent-Lord. “You knew, you bastard, and you let us…you let me think she was dead!” “I had no idea, Ger’alin,” the ruler of Silvermoon repeated. “However, now that she’s back, if she lives, we’ll need to take her into custody. She is a traitor to her people, after all.” “She’s no traitor,” Ger’alin said hoarsely, gathering Alayne into his arms. “She sacrificed herself to save us from that archer! She turned on them…she fought against them! You’ll take her from me, from us, when I lie cold and dead as that ranger!” he cried, pointing to the corpse laying next to her, a bloodless, gaping hole in its chest. Lor’themar blanched when he recognized the face and turned, desperate to get away. He nearly bowled over the Dark Lady as he scurried away. Sylvanas stared after the man in irritation as she walked over to the leaders of the Disorder of Azeroth. Like the elf before her, she gasped in horror when she recognized the two lying there. “Do you know about this, Lady?” Zerith asked, struggling to keep his voice calm. “She should have been told,” the Banshee Queen said coldly. “Perhaps if she had known…but that is past and cannot be undone. Arthas, you bastard, is there nothing you won’t twist to your own ends? Is even a father’s love but a tool to be used against your enemies?” “What are you talking about?” Zerith demanded. “Take a good look at the pair of them, children,” the Dark Lady hissed. “That,” she pointed to the corpse of the Scourge ranger, “was her father.” “You mean she…she killed her own…” Zerith said, aghast, “to save us?” 198


“She must have loved you very strongly to make that choice,” Sylvanas muttered. “I wondered why she never returned when the others who had fallen ill began trickling back to us. Oh, yes; we knew. We knew or at least strongly suspected they still lived. What good would it have done to tell you? Some suspected it was a plot. A plot to lure us into Northrend in hopes of ‘saving’ them. Seeing them together…I see what held her there. Tal’ar used to talk of his daughter; she was the center of his universe from the day the midwife put her in his arms. He would have done anything to keep her with him and, if half of what I’ve heard of the young woman is correct, her own nature would have demanded the same. He never could bear to be parted long from those he loved: Miris and Alayne. He also would have done anything to protect either of them. Alayne inherited that trait from him as well, it seems. She may be the spitting image of her mother but she’s her father’s daughter.” Standing up, Sylvanas wiped her hands on her skirts. “Burn the body,” she said coldly, striding away. ~*~*~*~ “How long do you think she’ll sleep for?” Ger’alin asked as he lay Alayne down on the bed. Without waiting for an answer, he began to remove the sleeping woman’s armor, knowing from experience that a person could not rest comfortably in full plate. “I have no idea,” Zerith replied as he stared at her face. “Honestly, I expected her to be awake already. Stop that, Ger’alin, and put your hand on her forehead. Tell me what you sense.” Scowling, the paladin dropped the woman’s breastplate, grimacing at the hole punched through it. He lifted her up and pulled the back-plate away as well, letting her settle back down without the heavy armor pressing down on her exhausted frame. Lifting his hand, he laid it on the woman’s forehead and closed his eyes. “Exhaustion,” the paladin muttered. “It’s just exhaustion.” “That excuse worked last time because you didn’t know…” “It’s exhaustion!” the man shouted, standing up from the bed and stalking out of the room. Staring after him, Zerith shook his head. Exhausted people didn’t feel as if their soul no longer inhabited their body. They didn’t feel chill to the touch. With a sigh, Zerith walked over to the bed and, after examining the straps on Alayne’s ghastly runed leg-plates, called for Dar’ja’s assistance. “Out, out,” his wife muttered, shooing him from the room while she stripped the rest of the armor off his sister’s sleeping body and covered her with a blanket. Dar’ja ducked her head into the hallway, asking Zerith to carry her a basin of water so she could at least wash the blood and sweat away. “We could all use a bath,” his wife muttered pointedly when he returned with the water. After she’d finished cleaning the woman off and had pulled one of her old linen nightgowns over her head, Dar’ja felt a shiver run over her. Looking around, she thought she heard voices murmuring softly. Giving her head a shake, she stalked out into the hallway, determined to go wash off as well. ~*~*~*~ The spirit of the elven man smiled at the other woman as she stormed out of the room. She was a good example for his daughter to follow. Looking down at her sleeping face, Tal’ar sighed. He could feel Miris calling out to him, impatient for them to finally to be on their way. But, he couldn’t leave their daughter without saying something to try to make up for the pain he’d caused her. He had never been able to return to her in life and he’d been unable to help her resist following him in death. She could no more have left him than he 199


could have been willingly parted from her or Miris. So much like him…no wonder she’d driven her mother up the wall. Staring down at her, he could see the etched lines of suffering that marred her face; the marks that showed how she struggled with the temperament and spirit she’d inherited from him and the lessons Miris had tried so hard to instill in her. With a fond, but sad, smile, he wished he were still alive to help her, to teach her how to focus her spirit and use it, instead of being torn in half by it. To teach her what things she should learn from her mother and what things she should ignore. So many things he could not say, could not do…but this, he could. “Sleep, Alayne,” his spirit whispered, reaching out a phantasmagorical hand to lightly touch her face. “Soon you will have to wake; soon you will have to face all that has happened, all that you have done. But for now, my daughter, sleep.” As he ascended to the realm where all must travel when their time comes, below him, his daughter stirred slightly, warmth and color returning to her face.

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Alayne's Story: Part I  

The first part of Alayne's Story.