Shouts and the clash of steel rang across the deck of The Fortitude.
Aren sat on a coiled pile of rope near the rail, watching the Redbranches spar back and forth in the middle of a ring of onlookers calling encouragement. Both were clad in light armor and already red-faced beneath the afternoon sun. Nathanial brandished his favorite short sword and buckler, while Ander had discarded his usual poleaxe in favor of a matched pair of cutlasses he'd borrowed from the ship's locker.
Sparks flew from the buckler's studs as Nathanial raised it to block a wild flurry of blows. He lunged and thrust out with his sword beneath it, causing Ander to break off his assault and twist out of the way with a yelp.
He quickly balanced on the balls of his feet, dancing in a circle around Nathanial and occasionally lashing out with one blade or the other, hoping to catch his brother flat-footed.
"You ain't gonna make him dizzy, lad!" an old man crowed to hoots and laughter from the crowd.
A woman shrieked as Nathanial's blade flashed out, parried away a hairsbreadth from laying open Ander's cheek. He grinned and winked at her as he spun past.
A low laugh caught Aren's attention. He looked up to see Luciel watching the mock-battle at his side, hair twisted up and out of the way in a tight braid and sweat sheening the purple skin of her face. Ever since Vorthaal had pronounced her healed enough to walk, she'd spent most of her time on limbering and agility exercises. They seemed to be paying off; her steps were as silent as ever. "His swordmaster would box his ears for that, but he does have flair."
Aren laughed. He'd watched the brothers spar countless times, but despite their seeming recklessness they'd never injured one another beyond a few nicks and bruises. "At the moment, I'm glad he does. I had to break up a brawl in the mess today. They said it was over a missing coin-purse, but I think everyone's just getting restless."
Luciel nodded in agreement, brushing a shadowy wisp of hair back behind a pointed ear. "I miss the shade of the forests, myself. I learned to rise with the sun to better understand your kind, but the light is even harsher on the sea than in your cities. Your people's love for day still puzzles me. Why always walk beneath the sun when it burns your skins?"
Aren absently touched the bridge of his nose where his own sunburn had long ago faded to tan. "Most of us can't see very well in the dark." He paused a moment, fumbling for a more complete answer. "And most of us worship the Holy Light. In many of the parables, darkness is where evil dwells."
She squinted briefly in the direction of the sun's yellow torch, the silvery glow of her eyes barely discernable now. "We think the same of fire."
Aren found that interesting. He knew the night elves' war with the Legion had begun far earlier than his own people's, and he wondered how much of that aversion started with the vile corruption of demonflame. "Well, Light willing, we'll all be out of the sun soon. Captain Verner says we should make port today, and I've heard the clouds over Auberdine never lift."
After those last two deaths more than a week ago, the journey had been mercifully uneventful. The occasional storm had been short and easily weathered and the winds had pushed them swiftly along towards Kalimdor. Other than checking up on those few wounded who remained bedridden, his only duty had been dealing with a pair of disgruntled merchant representatives whose goods had been damaged during the battle and who were demanding compensation. The claim was pure nonsense – the Scourge had assaulted the ship, not the Argent Dawn – but apparently the merchants' gratitude for their lives didn't extend as far as their bottom line.
A loud roar from the crowd heralded the end of the sparring match. He looked over to see Ander lying on the deck with Nathanial's sword pointed at his throat and a large red bump on his forehead where he'd obviously been whacked with the shield.
He groaned dramatically as Nathanial sheathed his blade and the black-haired woman who'd screamed earlier knelt down to check on his bruise. "My head! Murdered in cold blood by my own brother."
"Only if you can die of theatrics," Nathanial said unsympathetically, tilting his head to study the effects of his blow. "I told you you didn't push your helm down far enough!"
"I think you look dashing," the kneeling woman said, dabbing ineffectually at the lump with a damp handkerchief.
Nathanial snorted. "Well, he's certainly been dashed."
Luciel laughed as Ander cracked open one of the eyes he'd closed in his "agony" and peered up at his rescuer. "Ander's on the ground, but I'm not certain he hasn't won."
"I'm sure he'd agree with you." The woman was pretty and rather plump, and between how tightly her bodice was laced and the way she was leaning over him, Aren suspected his view was enviable.
Standing, he brushed the clinging rope fibers from his tunic and gazed out towards the glittering blue line where sea met sky. He'd been checking it constantly ever since Verner offhandedly mentioned Auberdine was close, but although the view was lovely, he couldn't muster much more than wary impatience in response to it. This was meant to be the safe part of their journey.
Callista leaned back against the rail and propped her book up on her stomach, sunning herself in the light that bathed the deck. She occasionally turned a page, but the dense tome on warding runes held less interest for her than the laughter and excited chatter that drifted in the wake of the Redbranches' sparring match. After almost two weeks at sea, the cramped quarters were beginning to chafe. Even reading was losing its appeal.
She kept an ear hopefully cocked for the lookout up in the crow's nest, but so far all she heard was the slap of waves and the noise of her fellow passengers. Scowling unconsciously, she smoothed a page down harder than was really necessary. Now that they were nearing Kalimdor, some of her irritation at her situation (forgotten amidst the chaos of the Scourge attack) had returned. She'd sent a letter to Lord Duncan before she'd set off on this little excursion; since those with the coin always sent their mail by magecraft instead of by ship, his reply had almost certainly reached Auberdine days ago and was waiting for her even now. She itched to know what it said.
Light footsteps padded across the deck towards her and then paused.
She looked up to see Dinah peering curiously at her book from beneath the hood of her cloak. The girl never seemed to lower it, no matter how warm the sun, and Callista suspected she was avoiding a tan in the hopes of looking more warlock-like.
Since she'd just read the same paragraph twice without registering any of it, she was less annoyed by the interruption than she might have been. Sticking a frayed length of ribbon between the pages to mark her place, she turned the book so Dinah could see the cover. "It's on wards. Malven Icefinger."
Dinah wrinkled her brow and eyed her suspiciously, unsure if she was being teased. "Icefinger's not a warlock, he wrote my third year text. What is it really?"
Callista laughed. Their encounter in the hold had convinced her that at least the girl had will (even if she did lack a certain amount of polish), and ever since, she'd treated her less dismissively. The warlock had no desire for an apprentice, and she wasn't about to start recommending courses of study, but she'd answer direct questions if she wasn't otherwise occupied. It was better than leaving her to whatever muddled half-answer Sabrice could dredge up. "It's really a book on warding runes. Believe it or not, fel magic isn't all blood and raining fire."
"I know that," Dinah said. She looked at her critically, adjusting the edge of her own hood against marauding sunbeams. "Your nose is turning all pink again."
"Let it," Callista said. After a day or two under the trees at Auberdine it would fade to tan, and the less she resembled the fish-belly white, hook-nosed, green-eyed stereotype of a human warlock, the happier she'd be in the night elven city. Particularly if she were stuck there alone long waiting for the next ship to Stormwind. She still had no intention of accompanying the Dawn on its asinine quest.
After a brief pause, Dinah seemed to remember what she'd come to ask and her expression of vague disapproval faded into curiosity. "What does 'shat'threcht' mean?"
Callista raised a brow. Now there was a word that didn't turn up too often in legitimate texts. "Where did you read that?"
"The treatise on summoning circles I'm studying. The author used it to describe switching ox blood for a thinking creature's in the demarcation."
Callista snorted. "Yes, I suppose he would. Don't ever do that, by the way."
"Why?" A pair of young boys tumbled along the deck behind her, giggling and whacking at each other with shards of planks in imitation of the Redbranch brothers, and her eyes darted to see if anyone was eavesdropping before she sat down next to Callista with her back to the rail.
Callista's mouth twitched wryly at her caution. The Fortitude was not a large ship, and after the battle she doubted there was anyone on it who didn't know what she was. Anyone who cared to watch would've noticed the way the apprentice mage sought her out and drawn the obvious conclusion some time ago. If she meant to be subtle about her interest in demonic magic, she'd started far too late. "Because no matter what the druids tell you, not all life is equal. Ritual blood needs to channel the arcane. All thinking creatures have some potential for that, but animals don't. An arcanist's blood is even better, which is why most of the more, uh, scrupulous warlocks use their own." Of course, not all warlocks were scrupulous, which explained a great deal of the average mage's hatred for them. "Demons' blood is best, but that can be hard to come by."
Dinah nodded thoughtfully at that, a few locks of brown hair escaping from beneath her hood. "So what's 'shat'threcht' mean?" She watched her closely and a little suspiciously from the corner of her eye, as though she thought Callista had been intentionally distracting her.
Callista repressed a laugh. That was one thing she gave her credit for; the girl seemed reluctant to drop her initial distrust of her, which made her already far more sensible than many grown men and women she knew. "It means Light-touched. An insult. A fairly nasty one, actually, if you're a demon. Kind of like calling someone a lunatic and a damned idiot all at once."
"Really?" She looked delighted. Dinah was evidently young and well-bred enough that using foul language hadn't lost all of its thrill. "Do you think Magister Sabrice knows?"
"I'm sure he could guess."
She made a sour face. It only scrunched up more as her gaze traveled past Callista to something further down the rail. "Look, those ugly merchants are back pestering Sir Aren again."
Callista turned her head and narrowed her eyes at the sight. Joffren Glasswright (a tall man with a prematurely bald pate and watery blue eyes) and Rizzle Steamrocket (no less attractive than most goblins, but still clearly unappealing to Dinah) stood talking to a resigned-looking Sir Aren, who they'd cornered near one of the lifeboats. Dinah had taken a dislike to the pair after they'd scolded her for sitting on one of their crates while she studied. Callista loathed them because once they'd failed to convince Sir Aren to pay for their lost cargo they'd approached the rest of his company, hoping to persuade them to exert some pressure on him. The mix of arrogance and obsequiousness in their manner (as well as the insultingly low amount of gold they'd offered for her help) had set her teeth on edge to the point she'd spent most of the conversation fantasizing about nailing them into their own crate of broken glassware and heaving it overboard.
Climbing to her feet, she tucked her book under one arm and smoothed out her tunic. Just watching them caused the impatience she was already feeling to flare into annoyance. She liked Sir Aren, and he did an admirable job of chopping up Scourge, but he seemed infuriatingly reluctant to bare his teeth at anyone he considered a civilian.
Callista, however, had no such qualms. And little better to do, either.
"Where are you going?" Dinah asked as Callista rose from her seat.
"To say hello, of course. You stay here."
Dinah made a face at the order, but must've heard something in her tone that discouraged argument. Drawing up her legs, she rested her chin on her knees to watch as Callista approached the two merchants from the back.
Sir Aren's brows lifted as she prowled closer, but before he could greet her she gave a tiny shake of her head.
His brows rose even further, almost disappearing into the blond hair that fell over his forehead, but he kept silent.
The two merchants didn't notice her until she was standing at Joffren's elbow.
He jumped and skittered a half step sideways when she popped into his peripheral vision. "Ah, Miss Dunhaven," he said once he'd recovered. "Good afternoon."
She'd noticed she made him nervous the last time they spoke, which was why she'd chosen to stand so close to his side that her elbow almost brushed his own velvet-clad one. His goblin companion – whose people attached little stigma to fel magic so long as it turned a profit – had been much less cowed. "Hello, Joffren," she said, deliberately leaving off any honorific and smiling beatifically. "I hope I'm not interrupting."
"No, no, of course not," he said, failing to meet her eyes.
Rizzle crossed his arms and glared up at her. Callista found the expression less disconcerting than his wide mouthful of teeth. With their oversized grins and pointed features, goblins never failed to remind her of small green barracuda with legs. "Actually, you are," he said bluntly.
"Really?" she said, "accidentally" knocking her elbow against Joffren's and feeling delighted when he flinched. "How unfortunate for you."
"Do you need something, Callista?" Sir Aren asked. His expression was carefully neutral, but she noticed that his hands had unclenched slightly.
"No, but these two seem to."
"Ah, just a minor business matter," Joffren said, smiling nervously as he edged away, "nothing you need concern – "
"You owe us," Rizzle said, ignoring his partner's stammering. "Those decanters alone were worth seven hundred gold!"
"I'm sorry for your loss," Sir Aren said with tight patience (Callista repressed a snort – he made it sound like the creature had lost his mother instead of a heap of fancy glass), "but the Argent Dawn is not responsible for goods destroyed by the Scourge."
"With all due respect, sir," Joffren said, having sidled as far from Callista as he could manage without wedging Rizzle against the rail, "there is some confusion as to who, exactly, is responsible for the breakage. While I have no doubt the Scourge contributed greatly to the damage, your own forces were certainly careless as well. I think two-thirds market value would be reasonable compensation."
A muscle in Sir Aren's jaw tightened briefly before he schooled his face back into its calm expression. He opened his mouth to deliver what Callista was sure was an inhumanly placid response to this idiocy, but she jumped in before he could speak. Joffren and Rizzle may have worn the garb of merchants, but at heart they were pigheaded bullies. Courteous deflection they saw only as a signal to press their arguments harder; the ruthless kind of squashing they needed was unlikely to come from Sir Aren. From her, on the other hand…
"Re-think it," she snapped, narrowing her eyes on Joffren.
Startled by her sudden veer into hostility, he tried to back away another step but only succeeded in knocking against Rizzle, who cuffed at his waist.
"Watch it!" the goblin snarled. He turned his attention to Callista with his lip pulled back over his teeth. "Not your business, warlock. Tell your commander to pay up and this doesn't need to go any farther."
"'Any farther?'" she echoed, cocking her head in amusement. Goblins, like gnomes, were one of the more diminutive races of Azeroth, and, like gnomes, sometimes had difficulty getting taken seriously by people with a larger stature (and less wisdom). Some of them dealt with this more peaceably than others. Rizzle didn't strike her as the peaceable type, which was why she arranged her face into her most satiric smile. If he wasn't about to take a swing at her, he had more patience than most priests she knew. "I hope that wasn't a threat. I don't think I could stand the terror…"
"Callista," Sir Aren said sharply, shooting her a warning look.
Rizzle colored in fury. Or at least she assumed he did; his cheeks had definitely turned a more emerald shade of green. Joffren, who stood trapped between the two of them, looked ready to bolt or faint.
"Now, now," he said weakly.
"I've killed orcs twice your size," Rizzle hissed, voice shrill as his hand clenched around something hidden in the flowing folds of his cloak. "I'm a chartered bruiser of the Steamrocket Combine – "
"Keep your hands clear," Sir Aren ordered, his own straying to the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword.
They'd gathered a small crowd by now, albeit one gawking from a safe distance. Callista found that very convenient, but what pleased her even more was that no one seemed to have summoned the captain. The man was no fool and had little patience for warlocks; he would surely have separated them all by now.
She laughed, half in genuine disbelief and half because she knew it would cut. "You're a bruiser? In your own family's combine? Oh, Nether, what sort of legendary failure did it take to earn that? Let an ogre out-haggle you? Drop the family ledger down a well?"
It was a shot in the dark – after all, some goblin families were large, and when there were more children than overseer positions the extras had to be put somewhere through no fault of their own – but she must have hit close enough to the mark.
His face darkened to a blotchy jade and he yanked his hand from beneath his cloak with a wordless snarl of rage, fingers clenched around the stock of a bulky goblin pistol.
Before he could so much as point it at her, however, two things happened. Sir Aren's sword flashed from its scabbard, coming to rest with its edge against Rizzle's neck, and seething ropes of shadow as inky as the blade was bright erupted from the deck beneath the goblin's feet. They boiled up around his chest and arms, twining around his wrist and tightening until he dropped the pistol with a grunt of pain.
The passengers who'd been gawking shrieked and fled. A flutter of motion at the corner of her eye seized Callista's attention, and she jammed the hand still holding her book out to block Joffren as he tried to follow them. "Oh, no. Not you."
Sir Aren kicked the dropped pistol so it spun away across the planks but didn't remove his blade from Rizzle's neck. The glyphs on it blazed with golden light, and Callista's shadows frayed at the edges where they writhed too close to the blessed weapon. "Alright. He's disarmed," he said. "You can let him go."
Callista studied the goblin with satisfaction as he squirmed in a translucent net of shadow the greenish-purple of bruised skin. A skein drawn across his mouth limited his comments to outraged squeaks. "I could."
She turned to Joffren instead. The man had hunched himself down as far as he could into his velvet-lined cloak, eyes big with fear. He was larger than her and probably could've pushed past her arm if he'd tried, but seemed too skittish to make the attempt. "This is outrageous," he muttered weakly. "The Steamrocket Combine – "
"Isn't here." He was too tall for Callista to effectively look down her nose at, so she didn't try. Instead she inspected the backs of the nails on her free hand, making a show of ignoring the iridescent shadows still massing around the hapless goblin. He might've disappeared inside them entirely if it hadn't been for the golden glow of the paladin's sword burning them away around his neck. "Now, you were saying something about a debt?"
"A small matter, hardly worth mentioning, just a huge misunderstanding in fact – Aah!" A questing tendril of shadow curled around his cheek, and he yelped and cringed away as though burned. He hadn't been, though he might well be if this went on too long. Fel magic wasn't constructed to be harmless, and the shadows writhing behind him were the real article. The air was as staticky and pregnant with potential as it was before a thunderstorm, but with a heavier undercurrent of dread.
"A misunderstanding? So you agree that no one but the Scourge owes you anything."
"Yes! Yes, exactly. A piddling loss anyway, hardly worth anyone's time…" Sweat beaded on his nose and forehead despite the empty chill that accompanied the rising tide of magic.
"That's enough," Sir Aren said to her firmly, watching the shadows that slid away from his sword warily. "You shouldn't have provoked them like that to begin with."
Callista held up one of the fingers of her free hand at him behind her back - just another minute. She didn't think they were quite frightened enough of her yet, not enough to remember when they were out of her sight. "Good. Now take out your parchment – I know you have some, you were waving it at me enough before – and write it down." The strain of keeping her spell from turning Rizzle into a greenish puddle of corroded goo was making the harshness in her voice less feigned than she would've liked, and the fact she loathed the grasping little monster didn't help. Neither did Sir Aren's sword, which still shone like a blade-shaped sun and seemed to slice at the very bonds that held her power in its place.
"Enough, Callista." Sir Aren spoke up again as Joffren was scrabbling desperately in his pockets for a quill, and this time there was real iron in his voice. "You've made your point."
"Have I? You'll regret not letting him finish that. They'll have a bill at the doors of the Argent outpost before their cargo makes it down the gangway."
"We won't! I swear it!" Joffren gasped, fingers shaking so much ink jumped from the well in his hand. Bruised shadows, even more unnatural than usual beneath the bright sunlight, continued to writhe around Rizzle's struggling form behind him until he looked more like some kind of eldritch horror than a goblin.
"Maybe so. Let them go anyway. They're terrified." Sir Aren stirred his sword gently, trying to clear away some of the shadows clinging to Rizzle's face.
"They're supposed to be." She twitched one side of her mouth, hesitating theatrically, but after a moment she relented, half because she thought they really were frightened enough and half because the effort of keeping her magic in check was wearing on her. With a flick of her hand, the menacing shadows boiled away like morning mist.
Rizzle stumbled back against the rail as the magic binding him dissolved but quickly straightened, paler than he had been but otherwise no worse for wear.
Callista stepped aside and gestured sardonically to Joffren. He balked a moment, then darted past her at as close to a run as his dignity would allow, ink sloshing from the well he still clutched in his hand to stain his fingers. Rizzle shot her a glare that was too shaky to be truly baleful as he followed, but remained silent.
Sir Aren sheathed his sword once they'd gone and turned to face her with reproach and a little anger. "That wasn't a very honorable solution."
Callista met his gaze with unrepentant frankness. Honor ranked very low on her own personal list of priorities, and she'd never expected the paladin to approve. In fact, she'd wagered on him not noticing her game at all; if he'd realized he was playing the noble knight to her menacing villain he almost certainly would've put a stop to it much more quickly. "It wasn't a very honorable problem. They were trying to extort you."
"That's no excuse to respond in kind." He paused, apparently following a similar line of thought as she had. "I should've stopped you sooner."
"You shouldn't have stopped me at all. They might've learned something."
"What, that there's always a bigger bully in the yard? That isn't a lesson the Light means us to teach."
"No? And what lesson would it prefer? If those two go down to the Argent outpost and whinge long enough your superiors will throw them some gold just to stop the screeching. Better they learn there's always a bigger bully than continue under the delusion that they're it."
He paused, studying her face for long enough that Callista began to wonder if her vicious cynicism had struck him speechless before he responded. "You're better than that."
It was such an unlikely thing to say that for a moment she just stared, dissecting his tone for sarcasm that she didn't find. Even Tun, who was her best friend in the world and liked her more than anyone, knew better than to claim she was above anything. If he was serious (and he always seemed to be), Sir Aren was either the blindest optimist or the poorest judge of character she had ever met. "Doubtful. But I'm certainly better at it."
Sir Aren just gave a brief, crooked smile (and all his smiles, she'd noticed, were a little lopsided, as though he'd been out of practice once and hadn't quite recovered the knack yet), watching her intently enough that she actually felt a small flush of discomfort before he shook his head. "I'm sure those two poor merchants used to say the same. And what will you do when you find your own nastier match?"
Callista considered that for a moment, then cocked her head impishly. "Marry him, probably."
For a moment she thought he was actually, improbably, going to laugh, but he caught himself in time, marshalling his features back into an exasperated frown. He opened his mouth (to continue scolding her, no doubt), then seemed to change his mind and shut it again. Instead he rolled his eyes in surrender, the way he did when Ander made a particularly perverse quip. "It's easier to picture you setting that tentacled beast of yours on him."
Delighted to have gotten around him, she answered with a more devilish look than usual. "I can't try both?"
He shook his head again and this time he really did laugh. "I pity your future husband."
Callista thought about pointing out that he was probably pitying no one, then decided against it. She'd given more serious thought to joining the Burning Legion than she ever had to marriage; her lifestyle didn't lend itself very well to commitment, consistency, honesty, or a whole slew of other things common wisdom held were necessary for it. This wasn't information she generally volunteered, though. Some people seemed to consider a young woman who didn't want children even more unnatural than a warlock.
She quirked a brow instead. "Why? I thought we just established he was worse."
"I suppose we did. Whatever happened to women wanting white knights?"
She tilted her head, trying to decide if he was flirting with her or just oblivious. The paladin wore the onyx and silver tabard of the Argent Dawn today, not white, but she'd always preferred black knights anyway. "They went out with puffed sleeves and smelling salts," she said, compromising by teasing him only a little. "I always wanted to marry a pirate."
Speaking of pirates, she was surprised Captain Verner hadn't already come over to shout at her for frightening his passengers. The man had shown her somewhat less contempt since she'd helped save his ship, but not that much; it would probably be best to let Sir Aren deal with him. She supposed those white knights had their uses after all.
Whatever Sir Aren may have answered to her dig was interrupted by the stentorian yell of the lookout posted in the crow's nest.
"Land ahead! Laaaand ahead!"
Cheers and whistles rose clear from the passengers on deck and floated up muffled from those below. She thought she could pick out Ander's distinctively raucous whoop among the voices and laughed in response.
"Over at last," Sir Aren said, shading his brow with his hand and squinting out towards the horizon.
Callista followed his gaze, but her eyes weren't sharp enough to make out anything over the hard gleam of the waves. This wasn't over yet, but once she got ashore she intended to make it that way.
"Not bad," Wynda said, smacking her lips and swirling the frothy beer in her mug, "but no Ironforge brew."
They sat in the common room of the Fish Eye Tavern, empty except for a chattering trio of gnomes in one corner and a pair of bored-looking Sentinels near the bar. Auberdine was an important port for the Alliance in Kalimdor, but the damp fog that perpetually shrouded it discouraged most travelers from lingering. Those who did mostly preferred the more cheerful inn in the center of town to the seedy Fisheye, but Aren had chosen it for its proximity to the road to Felwood, not its atmosphere.
He took an experimental sip of his own mug of the house brew. Not quite as thick and bitter as the stouts the dwarves favored, but it had an unusual nutty flavor that he found he liked. "I'm surprised the barley will grow at all in this soup."
Thick grey mist gathered outside the warped glass of the windows, and the smoke swirling around the gracefully-carved rafters made it seem as though the gloom had crept inside as well. Even so, it couldn't dampen his good mood at finally being off that ship.
Vorthaal drained half his mug in one swig and then sniffed dismissively at the remainder. "I have had much worse, but all of your ale tastes like strange water to me. When we return you must come with me to the Exodar and I will show you true drink."
Wynda laughed. "Strange water, aye? Come with me to Dun Morogh and I'll show you what real beer tastes like. Thick enough to cut with a knife and strong enough to knock even a draenei onto his tailed arse."
Vorthaal smiled in return, eyes bright in the smoky dimness. "Is that a challenge?"
"Better hope not," Nathanial said, wiping foam from his mouth with the back of a hand. "Wynda could out-drink a monsterbelly."
"Don't listen to my brother," Ander put in with a grin. "He's just sore 'cause he's a lightweight."
"Uh-huh. And which of us was it who threw up all over the Trade District last Brewfest?"
"I don't remember that!"
"I'll bet you don't," Nathanial grumbled. "I'm surprised the canals didn't run green until solstice."
"Ach. My infant nephew could drink you both under the bar," Wynda said impishly, "and then drink that too. Human lads just don't start young enough."
Aren left them to their banter, content to sip his beer in silence. He'd had a long afternoon supervising the unloading of their supplies and mounts, and even though it was nearly a bell before sundown he was already ready to retire. He probably would've done so already, if he hadn't been waiting for Luciel and Callista to return. Callista more so than Luciel, if truth be told. While the night elf was simply visiting friends who lived near the port, Callista had gone to the tradepost to check for letters from her highly-placed friends in Stormwind, and she'd made no secret of the fact she was still looking for a way to free herself of their journey. While Aren was angry at whoever had dared try to blackmail her into helping them, he was ashamed to acknowledge the small, selfish hope that she wouldn't find what she was looking for. He wanted her with them, for both practical reasons and others he didn't care to examine too closely.
"Maybe we should settle this right now," Ander suggested, waggling his brows playfully.
Vorthaal shifted on his oversized stool so it creaked under his weight, eyeing Aren uncertainly. "Are you sure that that is wise? We must leave at first light tomorrow."
Aren hid a smile by taking another swallow of his own drink. He couldn't responsibly tell his command that he'd turn a blind eye if they were sluggish next morning, but this was the last night in a real town they were likely to get before they reached Felwood, and he would rather they got it out of their systems now. The Light taught moderation in all things, but too much moderation was as bad for morale as too little. "As long as you can sit a mount at daybreak…"
"Don't worry, Nate will help me tie you on to make up for the embarrassment you're about to suffer," Ander said with wide-eyed sympathy.
Vorthaal snorted and flicked his thick tail dismissively against the leg of his stool. "I have been drinking since before your great-grandsires were born."
Pursing his lips amiably at Wynda, Aren stood and drained what was left in his mug. His company was small, and his relationship with his soldiers was much friendlier than he'd had with many of his own commanders, but he still knew they'd enjoy themselves more if he made himself scarce. That had stung once, when he'd taken his first command amid the decaying ruins of Andorhal; he'd already lost so much, and being set apart from the few of his friends who remained living had seemed an unexpected, unfair kind of hurt. It had gotten easier since then, though. Or maybe he'd just gotten better at setting aside that kind of companionship. "I'm going to go see if I can track down Luciel or Callista."
Vorthaal and the twins were too absorbed in their argument to take any notice, but Wynda nodded a farewell.
As he stepped out of the smoky confines of the tavern, Aren took a deep breath of the humid air. Though it was tinged with salt from the nearby sea, the green smell of growing things was still welcome after so long away from land.
He followed the cobbled street towards Tassik's Tradepost, nodding politely at the occasional night elf who crossed his path. They all returned the gesture cordially enough, but there was nothing warm in their expressions. On the one other occasion he'd visited Auberdine, he'd found it to be a cheerless place, and that impression was only solidified on this second visit. Even the weeds that poked up through the cobbles looked washed out. The sky was a misty grey, and long pine boughs dipped low over the road in some places, dripping moisture.
Recognizing Callista's voice, he tipped his chin in acknowledgment as a figure resolved itself through the fog.
She broke into a half jog to meet him, holding in one hand what looked to be a letter with an elaborate wax seal at the bottom of it. "I take back anything awful I ever said about the nobility," she said as she halted before him. Clad in her usual grey cloak with the mist pearling in her hair, he thought she looked rather elegant, though he had an impulse to press a healing prayer to the sunburn splotched across her nose that he was sure she would've laughed at.
"You got your letter?" he asked rather inanely, trying to sound more pleased than he felt.
She laughed. "Oh, yes. Full immunity, in fact. Lord Duncan doesn't believe in half measures."
Looking closer at the parchment she offered for his inspection, he noticed that the blue wax of the seal was flecked with gold leaf that glittered in the dimness. King Anduin's childish signature scrawled across the letter beside it. No half measures, indeed. He wondered what favors she'd called in to gain that pardon, or how much she now owed her noble benefactor. "Good. I'm glad it worked out for you."
Her head tilted as she watched him, and he refused to drop her gaze as she eyed him closely for a long silent moment. "I did tell you I wasn't coming," she said finally, more gently than he might have expected.
"I – yes, I know you did. But…why not reconsider?" he said, words spilling out before even he was sure what his argument was. "That's a royal pardon, no one can force you into anything anymore. And you've already come all the way to Kalimdor. It would be an adventure."
She folded up her letter and tucked it into a small leather pouch that hung at her side. "I'm not looking for adventure. I'm not a crusader." She kept her voice soft, but there was an edge beneath it.
He refused to be deterred by it. "Neither am I, or the Argent Dawn. This isn't some holy assault to cleanse Felwood. Just an opportunity to help."
Her mouth twitched with the barest hint of amusement. "The greater good? Is that the best argument you can make for me to risk my life for you?"
He hesitated awkwardly for a moment. What did she expect him to say to that? What could he say? "Of course," he lied stiffly. "There's no greater cause under the Light."
"And how convenient that is." He'd always liked watching her eyes, which were an attractive shade of grey and held an almost perpetual amusement he found fascinating, but there was something unpleasantly sardonic in them now. Whatever she'd expected him to say, he'd obviously chosen poorly. "I'm heading back to the tavern. Goodbye, Sir Aren, if I don't see you before daybreak."
"Aren is fine," he said dully and somewhat irrelevantly, trying to sort out a bewildered tangle of emotion and startled by the abrupt end of the conversation. "You're not in my company anymore, it doesn't…"
"Goodbye, Aren, then," she said.
The edge of her cloak brushed his arm as she moved past, and his fingers twitched with a sudden impulse to grab her elbow to stop her, but he wasn't any surer how to convince her now than he'd been ten heartbeats earlier and so he simply let her go.
After she'd vanished down the cobbled street, he continued to watch the mist swirl lacy patterns in the space she'd left. He had to follow her, of course – there was nowhere for him to go but back to the tavern, himself – but he was loath to run into her again on the path. Idiot, he thought to himself savagely. Though he couldn't quite make up his mind as to where the stupidity lay; whether it was in the way he'd bungled the conversation or the fact he'd hoped for any other answer from her. The woman was a warlock, for Light's sake. Maybe it was a blessing she'd left before he'd had the chance to do anything even more foolish.
Somehow he couldn't quite make himself believe it, though.
Judging that he'd given her a safe-enough head start, he began wandering back towards the tavern, slowly so as not to catch up. Fat drops of condensation plopped down from the pine boughs that overhung the street. He silently asked the Light for clarity, but all he got was chilled as a particularly large branch shed its cloak of droplets onto his bare head. He would miss her, he realized uncomfortably, and not just for her knack with the arcane. Whatever Callista's flaws, she was clever, self-possessed, and made it almost impossible to brood in her presence. When she looked at him, he saw neither the pity nor the glory-worship he'd found in the eyes of so many women since he'd escaped the wrack of Lordaeron, and that was comforting. Aren thought of himself as any number of things, when he bothered to think of himself at all – soldier, survivor, servant of the Holy Light – but victim and war hero were two titles that sat equally ill on him. Whatever Callista thought of him (and he wasn't foolish enough to imagine that those thoughts were always flattering), at least he was sure that her opinions were of him.
The weathered grey door of the Fisheye Tavern appeared ahead like a solidifying of the fog. He eyed it warily for a moment before a flush of embarrassment for loitering outside the door like a farmboy at his first harvest dance steeled his resolve. Under the pretense of checking that the inn had found proper accommodations for his destrier, he headed off towards the stables.
When she pushed open the door, Callista was amused to find Wynda, Vorthaal and the Redbranches with their heads tilted back in identical gestures as they downed shots of some murky brown liquor.
"I hope you ordered one for me," she said, sliding onto the empty stool next to Wynda.
"Ugh, here, take mine," Nathanial said, gagging and pushing a shot glass across the table at her. "Dwarvish whiskey, tastes like something they use to fuel those gyropters."
"Quitter," Ander said, despite the fact he had the sickly-pale expression of a man struggling to keep the contents of his stomach where they belonged.
Wynda snorted good-naturedly. She didn't look nearly as miserable as the two men, but her freckled nose had flushed almost as red as her hair. "You both drink like little gnome lasses."
"That is most foul," Vorthaal said, though he sounded almost admiring. He tugged thoughtfully at the ring that adorned one of his facial tendrils as he eyed his second shot glass.
Suddenly suspecting she'd made a horrible mistake, Callista sniffed at her glass and immediately wished she hadn't as the reek of raw alcohol burned her nose. She wasn't about to back down now, though. Especially not after everyone else had tried it. Holding her breath, she rested the rim of the shot glass on her bottom lip and threw her head back sharply.
Despite the fact she couldn't taste anything, the sensation of the liquor searing its way to her belly was enough to bring tears to her eyes. She'd drunk an entire flagon of molasses firewater last Lunar Festival (mostly because Tun seemed to think she couldn't) and the next morning found that the stuff had raised blisters on her tongue, but this was by far worse. "Twisting Nether," she choked once she was sure the liquor wasn't going to follow the words up.
Wynda laughed heartily at her reaction and thumped her on the back. "Head up, lass, the second one's always easier."
Recognizing a bald-faced lie when she heard one, Callista made a face, scrunching up her nose and working her mouth as she tried to rid herself of the aftertaste. "That is distilled evil."
"You would know," Ander said, prodding his empty shot glass distrustfully with a fingertip and winking at her.
She bared her teeth playfully at him, but as the distraction of the terrible whiskey wore off her nagging sense of discomfort returned. This time tomorrow, she'd be waiting for a boat to Stormwind while everyone else at this table was halfway to Felwood. It was what she'd hoped for ever since she'd set foot on The Fortitude, but now that she'd gotten it she was loath to tell her companions that she was leaving. It felt unpleasantly (and completely irrationally, she told herself sharply) like betrayal.
"I'll get the next round," Nathanial said, pushing back his stool and gathering up the empty shot glasses. "Wynda is trying to murder our insides."
"Only the weak bits. They were probably only slowing down the rest anyway."
Callista snorted, wondering where Sir Aren had gone after their encounter on the street. Not back here, obviously…the thought caused her another of those uncomfortable pangs. She hadn't meant to cut things off like that. She'd never expected him to beg her to stay, but she hadn't expected an earful of trite piousness either, and that had irritated her. She could appreciate a good lie, but bad ones were just insulting.
Nathanial returned with a large stoppered jug in one hand and an armful of cups gathered against his chest with the other. "Moonberry wine," he said, setting his load down on the table with a clatter. "Not as strong, but I thought we could use something sweet after that."
"You say that like I can still feel my tongue," Ander said, sticking out the appendage in question and poking at it.
"Did you happen to run into Sir Aren out there, lass?" Wynda asked as she accepted a cup.
Yes, and promptly sent him running the other way. "Only for a moment. I don't know where he went after."
Wynda nodded, apparently satisfied with that answer.
Callista took a sip of her own wine and found it, as promised, dry and slightly sweet. Very good, actually, but she realized to her own consternation that she couldn't enjoy it. Feeling a sudden urge to pace, she stood, pushing her stool back abruptly enough that it teetered onto its back legs and fell upright again with a clatter. "I'll be back," she said, repressing a wince as she steadied it. "I just need to stretch after all that sailing."
It was a weak excuse, but no one seemed to question it. Ander's wave as he acknowledged her departure was sloppier than usual, and she wondered how much they'd had to drink before she sat down. Being the soberest one in the room was never any fun anyway, and she wasn't in the mood to try to catch up.
She strode out past a pair of Sentinels who eyed her briefly as she shoved open the door, then stood for a moment in the chilly fog that swallowed the town. The grey afternoon was fading into a murky twilight, and the cool breeze seemed only to stir the mist into more phantasmagoric shapes without dispersing it. With no real destination in mind, she began wandering around the side of the tavern, leaving dark footprints in her wake as she knocked the silvery dew from the grass.
A pall always seemed to hang over Auberdine. It reminded Callista a little of a graveyard, or the ravaged plain of some terrible long-ago battlefield, but as far as she knew no such tragedy had occurred here. Maybe she was just letting her own foul mood color her surroundings. Even so, she found the idea of spending several days alone here waiting for a ship highly unpleasant.
Rounding the corner of the inn, she caught sight of the distinctive broad-shouldered, black-and-silver-garbed figure of Sir Aren exiting the large stable at its back and froze uncertainly.
The question of whether he'd seen her or not was answered when he paused a moment before walking straight for her.
She crossed her arms and waited resignedly for him, not sure she cared for the purposefulness of his stride. He had the look of a man who had made up his mind and was determined to do something about it, and she couldn't imagine herself being very pleased over anything he'd decided.
When he'd approached to a comfortable speaking distance, he stopped and smiled somewhat wryly at her. "If you're going to check on your horse, don't bother. The stablekeep is Kaldorei, and I think he likes those animals better than he does us."
Not quite the confrontational opening she'd expected, but she remained wary anyway. "No, just out for some air." She waved a hand, fraying the mist between her spread fingers. "Such as there is."
He nodded silently, then seemed to hesitate, smile falling into a more serious expression.
Sensing he wanted to broach his real point but also aware that she was much better at enduring awkward silences than he was, Callista left him to dangle rather than voicing an opening. If he insisted on having this conversation again, she supposed she owed him enough to listen, but that didn't mean she had to make it easy.
"Look," he said finally, lowering his voice. "I know I didn't make a very convincing argument last time, but I honestly think you're making a mistake by leaving. Ah, no, let me finish," he said, cutting her off as she opened her mouth to interrupt. "I know you're angry about how this started, and justifiably so. You don't want to play into the hands of whoever forced you here, but I don't think running blindly back to Stormwind is the right choice either."
She tilted her head, wholly unconvinced but curious as to where Sir Aren thought he was going with this, leaving her arms crossed. "Oh, trust me, I have no intention of running blindly anywhere."
"Then you know who did this to you?"
"No," she said dismissively. Not yet, at least. She may not have had a name, but what she did have was gold (her demon-catching business had proven extremely lucrative), and that was nearly as good. Between the wars with the Burning Legion on Outland, the Horde closer to home, and the Defias bandits in its own backyard, Stormwind's coffers had become distressingly empty of late, and noble titles were being sold with far less of the traditional insistence on respectability. Provided one knew how (expensively) to ask, of course. Callista's plan included buying one, using the purchased influence to hunt down whoever was responsible for blackmailing her, and sticking what shreds of his soul were left after her demons were finished with him in a jar over her fireplace. She doubted, however, that Sir Aren would think much of a plan that involved bribery and power-mongering to facilitate murder, and so she chose not to scandalize him with the truth.
"Do you even know what they want from you?" he pressed.
"Then why not come with us. It's probably your best chance of learning something you can use."
"Or getting a felguard's axe as a permanent hat," she said skeptically.
He smiled briefly at that, then shook his head. The gesture caused a swath of blond hair to fall over one of his eyes in a way that might have been endearing, if Callista had been the kind of woman softheaded enough to be swayed by such things. "Do you ever let anyone talk you into anything?"
She uncrossed her arms and shrugged, trying to inject as much apology as she could into the gesture to lessen the sting of refusal. "Only if I meant to do it anyway."
"Fine. I'll dispense with reason, then," he said, lifting his mouth in a half-smile. "Why not do it for friendship?"
She laughed. "I'd return overdue tomes from the Mage's Sanctum for friendship. Strolling blithely through a Burning Legion stronghold, however…"
"Sounds like you need to find better friends."
Her mind jumped suddenly to Tun, standing with her on the red sands of a strange world while flame seared the sky and demons tore each other to pieces around her, and even though she'd never believed in letting honesty get in the way of a useful conversation she couldn't bring herself to continue the lie. "Not true," she said more seriously.
After that there was silence. Mist swirled around them, and Callista suddenly realized how dark it had gotten. The stable was unlit, and she could no longer make out its low outline through the black curtain of fog. Muffled voices traveled ghostly through the logs of the tavern wall to her left, and she shivered in the sea-scented breeze that blew in from the water. It was cold, now that the sun had gone down.
She was just about to suggest they move back inside when the brush of his hand against her cheek stopped her. She froze, surprised – the man had sometimes seemed so stiffly full of honor she'd suspected he'd ask her to marry him before he'd touch her, but perhaps that had been unfair – as he traced her jaw with the calloused pad of his thumb.
She should push him away, but she wanted not to.
For a moment she hesitated, letting him cup her cheek in his sword-roughened palm but not returning the gesture, until annoyance and disgust at her own indecision asserted themselves and she pulled his hand away. "You don't want to do that," she said, trying to keep her voice light but not quite managing.
"If I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't have done it." In the dark he smelled of hay and horse and the oil he used to care for his armor, and why did he always have to be so wretchedly earnest.
"I'm not going with you, and I'm not doing this either," she said, narrowing her eyes and putting more steel into her words than she felt. Callista had always liked her arguments complicated and her relationships simple, and this reeked of complicated if she'd ever smelled it. Maybe Sir Aren was foolish enough not to care, but she knew better.
"This isn't about whether you stay or go," he said gently, reaching out for her again but not quite touching her cheek.
She laid her fingers on the back of his hand and nudged it away firmly but as kindly as she knew how. "Neither is this."
She felt more than saw him watching her through the opaque night, but he didn't try to touch her again. This was the right thing, she was certain; she was already conflicted enough about her choices without adding some ridiculous entanglement to the mix. Besides, they'd make a terrible match. He was gentle, honorable to a fault, completely honest, Twisting Nether, he was a genuine Light-worshipping paladin…
"I thought you'd say that," he said, and she could hear that lopsided smile in his voice as he turned to leave, "but I've already lost too many chances to circumstance to start giving them up for cowardice."
Suddenly unsure, she actually reached out a hand to stop him before she caught herself. That was a terrible idea, it was already over, all she had to do was let him go…but everything was relative, a traitorous voice whispered, and next to the long litany of idiotic things she'd done for much worse reasons she wasn't sure this even ranked.
"Aren, wait," she said.
When he turned to look at her again, she kissed him.
A/N: Whew, sorry for the delay on this one, but it's a little longer to make up for it. FYI, it's possible I'll switch the rating of this to M in coming chapters (for various members of the Burning Legion doing horrible things to various people and occasionally vice-versa), so even though most of you probably browse ffn with all ratings selected I figured I'd give the heads up just in case. As always, thanks for reading!