Eyes on the PrizeEdit
Clinging to her father's back for warmth, Aleithia studied the trees slipping past them in the darkness. "Are we still in Darkshore?"
"No, Aleithia. This is the Moonglade, far above Darkshore on the slopes of Mount Hyjal."
"It's cold. Why are we here?"
"We're going to meet an old friend. Uncle Loganaar."
Aleithia considered this for a moment. "Is he your brother?"
"He was my teacher. He and I have been friends for a long time."
"Since before I was born?"
Reme'en chuckled, gently. "Long before."
As the Nightsaber padded gently through the trackless wood, a huge shape loomed suddenly among the trees, and Aleithia caught her breath. It smelled of deer, and a little like her father, but was far larger than either. It was turned away from them, deep in conversation with another Kaldorei, but at Aleithia's breath, it straightened, and turned a little. Reme'en made a curious sound, halfway between a howl and a cry, which echoed eerily through the forest. The creature's answer came as a rumble, more felt than heard. It was a strange sound, but strangely welcoming.
Aleithia watched the mighty beast until the darkness closed around it. Like daddy, she thought. Only much bigger, with horns and a couple of extra legs. And his roots go even deeper. She pondered this for a while, as the big cat steered itself towards a faint globe of blue light among the trees.
"Was that my granddad?"
Reme'en chuckled again, more heartily this time; Aleithia felt the gentle shaking in her arms. She liked it when he did that. "Remulos is father to us all, child. But he is no Kaldorei."
Aleithia wasn't so sure, but she took her father's word for it. They passed silently out of the trees, and into a village, still and quiet in the night, until they reached a Moonwell where a tall old Kaldorei stood waiting.
"Thero'shan." Aleithia watched her father bow, and kiss the stranger's hand, before they embraced. She'd never seen him greet anybody that way before. "And who is this?" The tall one turned, smiling, to Aleithia.
"Hello, Shan'do. I'm Aleithia." The two adults laughed out loud at that, and she waited politely for them to finish.
"You must not call me Shan'do, child. I am Loganaar. Uncle Loganaar, if you wish."
They went inside, and she wandered the room, drinking berry juice, while the old ones talked. Daddy talked a lot, with his friends; most of the time, if she asked what something meant, he'd answer with words that were shorter but no less baffling. She'd learned to wait, or to butt in if she had something else to talk about.
"What are these seeds for?" The table at the side of the room was covered with dozens of identical dark-brown seeds about the size of a berry; they had a faint woody smell.
Loganaar smiled indulgently. "That, Aleithia, is a test. When the novice Druids return to me from the forest, they must show that they have learned to breathe with the trees and feel their growth, by choosing the living seed of the Hornbeam tree."
"Aren't they all seeds?"
"No. Some are wood, carved to look like seeds. Others are real seeds, but have no life in them. A few are the seeds of other trees, that look identical to that of the Hornbeam."
"So how can they find the Hornbeam seed?"
Loganaar smiled again; he clearly thought this question was far over her head. "The Hornbeam is a vigorous tree. His roots dig deep, drink deep, and he reaches soaring for the sky." He nodded, still smiling, and returned his attention to his old student.
Aleithia shrugged, and turned back to the seeds. Sure enough, most of them were dead. Others had a winding climbingness about them, or wanted to delve, but only one reached straight down and up, like a Kaldorei stretching in the moonlight. She wrinkled her nose. Did old ones really have to spend years and years in the forest to learn that? She picked out the Hornbeam seed, and put it in her pocket.
"You must be silent, when we meet the Keeper Remulos. Do not speak, child, unless you are spoken to." Aleithia nodded, patiently. This was obvious. "And you must bow deeply, when we arrive. You must call him Keeper Remulos, if he greets you. Mind your manners."
"Loganaar. I know. I do remember how to be polite to Elders of the Circle."
"This is no mere Elder, child. This is a son of Cenarius. He is above us as the sky is above the trees." Aleithia half-smiled, waiting for him to finish. There was little point in debating yet again how much she already understood of such remarks.
Despite his allegedly celestial status, Remulos smiled broadly and spread his huge arms wide as they approached along the forest path towards his sacred grove. "Loganaar, my son! It does these old bones good, among such spring chickens, to see another who remembers when these trees' great-grandfathers were in seed."
Loganaar bowed deeply, and Aleithia silently followed suit. "Shan'do Remulos. May my bones grow as old as yours, Elune willing. Malorne has been kind to us both." The two smiled at one another for a moment, then the demigod turned his attention to the girl.
"And who is this hot little flame?"
Aleithia bowed again, a little thrown by this remark. "My name is Aleithia, O Keeper Remulos." She kept her eyes cast down, politely.
Loganaar glared at her momentarily; clearly he had thought the question addressed to him. "She is the young daughter of Reme'en, Shan'do. She was among the Sisterhood, but... she learned that it was not her right path. Now she is come to my home, until Elune leads her on again."
"Ah, Reme'en." Keeper Remulos gently touched Aleithia's chin with one huge finger, and lifted her face. Her eyes met his, two deep pools of gold and brown, twinkling with tears or with the gladness of remembering. "He was a fine Druid. A fine Kaldorei. And this one is his daughter? She, too, burns brightly. Stay away from my trees, child, or you will have the forest in flames!" Remulos chuckled, a deep, booming sound, and Loganaar smiled politely. Aleithia simply watched, and waited. "And what do you strive for, little flame? What would you burn with this devouring passion?"
"I want to follow my parents, Keeper Remulos. I want to be a Druid." She kept her voice level. Loganaar knew this, had known it for years, but had always told her to mind her tongue and bide her time. "Uncle Loganaar says I must wait, and so I shall, if I must. But when may I begin?"
Loganaar turned to her with undisguised horror. This was not his idea of how the mighty should be spoken to. Then he found his tongue; "Foolish child-!"
"Peace, Loganaar." The Keeper had released her, and now took a step back to study the girl before him. "How many winters have you seen, child?"
Aleithia hesitated, but spoke the truth. "Fifteen, Keeper Remulos."
"Loganaar. What must a Kaldorei do, if they would become your student?"
Loganaar composed himself a little. "They must walk the forest, Shan'do, wait alone in the forest for wisdom."
Loganaar shook his head slowly, vacillating; "Sometimes fifty years, sometimes a century or two-"
"I did not ask you how long, I asked, until when?"
Loganaar swallowed. "Until they can breathe with the forest, feel its growth, sense the Balance in the pulse of the earth."
"And how do they prove this to you?"
"The test of the seeds, Shan'do." Loganaar paused. For a moment, in his mind, he saw a tiny girl gazing wide-eyed up at him with an impish grin, holding out her hand to show him the Hornbeam seed from her pocket. Then he shook his head, as if to dismiss the memory. "She is but an infant!"
Remulos sighed deeply. "We are all children at the feet of Malorne. Every one of us is his disciple. Even you and I - and even this tiny child. You would do well to remember it." Loganaar bowed his head, and Remulos continued, "Must they satisfy you of anything else?"
"Yes, Shan'do. I must be satisfied that they have renounced themselves, that their self-hope and self-will and self-reliance is gone. They must give themselves willingly, utterly, to live and die for the Balance."
Remulos nodded at last, and leaned forward to bring his face close to that of Aleithia. She felt his eyes look through her, measuring, following her past and her future along its path like a thread in the cloth of time. There was a vast depth in his eyes, and a kindness, but she shivered nonetheless at his gaze; these were eyes that had watched the millennia fall like leaves from the trees, and had seen countless lives end like snowflakes in the spring. She smelled his breath, and the memory of her father washed over her. But her gaze held his, and did not waver.
"Who has taken your family, child?"
"Your friends, in Auberdine?"
"Who lodges your teachers and elders?"
"Where did the path of your parents lead?"
"And you would follow them?" She nodded, and he paused. Then he poked at her shoulder, roughly. "Who owns these young bones?"
"Who owns this hungry mind?"
He prodded her stomach. "This hope of children?"
"This hope of happiness?"
"And how can you be freed from him, my child?"
"And how will your death come?"
"From the Balance. It devours us all." Her gaze had not wavered and her voice had not faltered. He nodded, slowly.
"She was well-named; there is truth in this one. She gives herself willingly, Loganaar. She is ready." He smiled, gently, at Aleithia, and she shivered again. "She may begin the training."
It was twelve days before Loganaar found his tongue again.
Blood on the FlowerEdit
The armoured Draenei towered over her, huge and blurry, like a blue giant from a dream. From this angle he seemed as tall as mountains. Her ears were full of thundering water, and the air was thick with mist.
"Hah," he rumbled. "She is tiny little girl, but she bleeds like wild elekk."
Beside her, one of the white graveflowers bowed its head, and murmured to her in Darnassian, "Can you hear me, little sister? Stay with us." There was blood on the flower. She wanted to tell the Draenei, to take some water and wash it clean, but the words, and the breath, wouldn't come.
The giant knelt down, and she felt his huge, cool hand across her forehead. He let out a huge sigh, and her mind plunged into a sea of clarity. Then the pain hit her like a wave.
"Gah." She spat out some blood, turned her head, and saw the hunter kneeling beside her, his silver eyes dark with concern. "Remind me." Elune, but that hurt. "Not play catch. With boulders." She looked around for Roxianna, then remembered she had left earlier, wounded by the lizards and too weak to continue. The other mage was over by the water, studying pieces of the Elemental. So much the better.
She clawed her hands into the earth, drawing up the healing forces that surged through this place like the river, and felt a little strength return. Then she took a deeper breath, and a thousand needles of pain stabbed into her chest.
"She needs help," said the hunter, in Common, to the blue giant. "Can we carry her back to the Elves?"
"To run, with elekk, is not far. Is long way to bleed."
Aleithia tried to shake her head, gathered another stabbing breath. "Moonglade," she coughed, "faster. I can travel. My Shan'do." She reached beyond her clawing fingers, deeper into the earth, and felt the Dream, like a blessed release, starting to envelop her. "Should be fine. You ok?"
The hunter smiled, and answered in Darnassian. "Our work here is done; the way home will be easier. Go safely, little sister." Her hand clasped his; only the Draenei noticed her other hand, at his feet, closing around something that lay on the ground. Then she was gone.
Death, and a Good DreamEdit
Tracking the disturbances in the Dream, Serinde had brought her to Loreth'Aran, which would have been gloomy enough without the chill of the abomination still stealing through her veins. It was a miserable, lost place, where the shades of long-dead Dragonriders walked raging, or lay, sleeping, or just plain dead. Perhaps it was easier to think of them that way: the chill wind was simply a chill wind; the ancient ruins only lumps of stone; perspective, and history, just pictures and stories. Better that than the dread.
Kestrel lay there, at the water's edge, half way dead and white as a ghost. Aleithia felt the cold settle in her stomach like a stone as she ran to Kestrel's side, to hold her hand, to pour life back into her too-frail flesh, to coax her back from the edge. The cuffs and collar of dark iron, glinting with fell runes, were shocking enough, but worse still were the slack, naked muscles; the calloused skin turned pale and pasty in the gloom and the salt damp; the angular, once-glaring face drawn with pain and vulnerable as an infant. She had lived millenia, and she was hours from death.
Serinde stood as Aleithia wrestled with Kestrel and with death, watching, contemplating, frowning slightly, with that calm steady gaze of older Druids that made her want to weep, or scream. "A Druid," her mother had once whispered, "is like a book that will tell you the truths of eternity tomorrow: in the here and now, he's useless." She remembered other eyes, looking through her as if seeing her whole life, her future, a thread in the tapestry of Dream; remembered wanting to yell, "Look at me!" - but simply murmuring, "yes, Shan'do," and waiting, as usual, for wisdom. Too much wisdom, she thought, is a cold and bitter thing.
A storm kept them out at sea, and it was almost two days before they brought the old huntress, delirious and fading fast, to Auberdine. The call had gone out, but most of the Guardians were days away; at a loss, she gave Kestrel the Anointing of Tranquility. Serinde sat very still at the end of the bed; Aleithia could no longer tell whether she was thinking, or Dreaming, or still looking for a way to break Kestrel's bonds. After two days of near-silence, she felt very alone. It was strangely comforting to intone the ancient, familiar words of healing once again.
She had scarcely finished the ritual when the room was filled with the too-sweet stench of death. Of all the Guardians, of all the Kal'dorei, it was the abomination that had come - to help, it said. She wanted nothing more than to smite it with the wrath of the Moon goddess whose name it blasphemed, make it pay satisfaction for the honoured dead whose memory it mocked; but she and Serinde were desperate, and Kestrel's life, just now, was more important than justice, more important, even, than the Balance. So they let it help.
She felt strangely comforted, as she lay half-submerged in the Moonwell, her arms wrapped tightly around Kestrel, thrashing with pain in the seething water. Perhaps she was glad to hear the abomination scream. Perhaps she knew already that they had won; that the cuffs would break, and Kestrel would live, and the sick fear was about to end. But it was hours later that peace came, after the long, exhausting flight to Nighthaven, when Aleithia, as a bear, finally crept into the nest Remulos had built in his grove, and lay down next to Kestrel. The smell and touch of the animal hair seemed to comfort her in her still-fevered sleep, to calm her shivering and help her breathe. Aleithia, feeling the gentle touch of the ancient Guardian on her back, watched the stars over Moonglade until she, too, slipped into an exhausted sleep, and dreamed of simpler times.
It was a good dream.
Reclaiming the ForestEdit
Of the five Orcs in the patrol, three never knew what had hit them; one moment they were creeping along the treeline, then next they were seized from below by the roots of trees as the moonlight turned to fire, and lightning fell from sudden clouds in the night sky. Then the cat was among them, airborne, her claws tearing the scout's head almost clear of his body - but the paws that touched the ground again were those of a huge bear, that roared as the last Orc turned to flee. He ran ten paces before a bush wrapped itself around his legs; he turned in time to see a slender elven girl standing over him, then her heavy staff met his skull with a wet crunch.
Aleithia stood there among the burned, slashed and battered Orcs, a spray of blood across her cheeks, and a vicious grin on her face. She rested her staff on the ground for a moment, and grasses grew around and over the carnage, reclaiming the bodies of the fallen for the roots of the forest. Then she turned; one step, two, and then only the silent trees remained.
A pall of dread had descended over Splintertree Post. The guards still stood guard, the scouts still scouted, but the banter and jokes had stopped. Patrols left in silence, their comrades looking the other way as they crept out of the camp and into the forest. The commander had grown harsher, angrier; none of the soldiers now would meet his stern glare. In five days, three patrols, twelve Orcs in all, had gone out and simply not returned. Every one of the remaining garrison was counting the days until the reinforcements arrived.
High above them, the slender Kaldorei stood hidden on a branch of a mighty Elm. There was blood on her hands now, and spattered over her clothes; she had stopped bothering to wash it off. She too was counting days, wondering how long it would take a messenger to make the return journey to Stonetalon, or Orgrimmar. Sooner or later, reinforcements would come; worthier opponents than the lowly grunts who garrisoned this outpost. And then there would be a reckoning.
Aleithia was still grinning.
Hanging back at Sarama's call to attack, Aleithia had thought herself hidden, but a Troll standing guard had seen her, and come for her, and was too fast for her. As his blade bit deep into her shoulder she sprang backwards, tumbling down the bank in a shower of leaves and twigs and her own blood. He stood silhouetted above her, and for a moment she thought he would come to finish her, but he turned, hearing the cries of his comrades inside the compound. Trying to blank out the pain, Aleithia dug her fingers into the earth, and breathed as deeply as she could bear. "Come on, come on," she growled, as the unseen tendrils of the forest reached up - too slowly, painfully slowly - to her touch, and remade her shoulder. Staggering to her feet, she felt drained and sick, even as she heard the screams of fleeing orcs; the attack was almost over, but her work was not yet done.
As she dashed through the compound, springing over corpses, dodging flames and the last desperate defenders, she felt her stomach turn. She had seen dead orcs before, and been glad at the sight, but this was chaos. She gritted her teeth and ran into the cave. There were Orcish ancestors to disinter and cremate, a shrine to dedicate; after her abject failure as a scout, this at least she would carry off.
It took all her willpower, then, deep within the roots of the forgiving forest, to still her mind and let the ancient words come back to her. Fae, the elder Druids and the Draenei priestess watched her, their pale, solemn faces spattered with Orc blood, as she gathered the words out of her childhood like an old friend, and tried to forget that she was herself still a child.
"Blessed watcher of the Night, walk among your loyal children this night, and accept our dedication of this place to you. Shine your light on us, here in the womb of your holy forest, and give us hope to walk in your ways.
"True guardian of the forest, shine your light on this place; grant your tranquility to this earth and this air and these your loving children.
"Mother and lover, be with your children who cry out to you this night, let us shine with your light; grant us your peace."
She opened her eyes, saw the faint, almost invisible silvery glow in the close air of the cave, and knew that the blessing had been granted. Elune was with them, and it was time to go.
She showed plenty of contrition for her sloppy scouting, when they regrouped at Silverwind Refuge, but laughed off the jibes readily enough. After all, she thought to herself, she had been wrong to accept the assignment, but Sarama should have known better than to send her and Fae scouting in a forest they hardly knew. She joked back with the others, let Shan'do Jarob see to her shoulder more thoroughly, and watched proudly as a new Guardian was initiated. She kept her smile together, but struggled all the while to forget that moment, when Sarama had shouted the ancestral battle cry, and the Kaldorei had streamed away from her, to bathe themselves in blood once more.
The knot of fear in her stomach had not yet begun to unwind.