Stand of the Exiles
Ranith was engaged in a time honored activity of her people, flight. They'd been running for ten thousand years, and it had come to them once again. She cursed vividly under her breath, head lowered against the nonstop drizzle. "We are a joyous people, Ranya. Never forget that." The words were a promise from her parents, but they haunted instead of comforted. Even before she'd been set on this path, Ranith had rarely felt joyous. And now, nothing could bring joy to her heart. She carried on because she had been told to, and that was more of a direction than she could come up with on her own. Behind her rested Shattrath, the City of Light… or it had. By now, its defenders, her parents among them, must have fallen. And hers was the generation that ran now.
"You are our only, Ranya." Her mother had hissed when she'd tried to stay. "Our only. If you die… Then we both die as if we have never existed." Her father had remained silent in the shadows, willing to allow his spouse to do the arguing, but Ranith knew he agreed. Nothing could convince either of them to reconsider their stance, and that stance had been reflected by Ranith's teachers. She must go. The people must carry on… except the nihilism that had gripped her soul asked those questions that shouldn't be asked.
Gravity and shifting muck jolted Ranith out of her fugue, knocking her to her rump in the deep, slimy mud. She sat for a moment, contemplating utter defeat. Why go on? The answer to that was simple, if she wanted to die there were better places and worthier causes to do it. She fought back to her feet, and stood. Her people were not designed for swamps, on firm ground; Ranith was graceful, speedy, and delicate. All of her weight was balanced on cervine legs that terminated in small cloven hooves. Those small cloven hooves punched through this muck and left her slogging and panting, weaving uncertainly from hillock to hillock. "Bah." She grumbled, finally raising her head to study her surroundings. She needed to rest, perhaps to eat, and the rain seemed to be increasing from its earlier monotonous drizzle. There would be no clean, dry clothes… she carried everything she owned. No shelter, either. She was such a baby, spoiled, hadn't she learned how she was supposed to do this from the legends, the stories? She sighed. The stories were one thing, but the reality another. Nothing changed the fact that she was alone, in the middle of an unfamiliar swamp, headed towards some nebulous destination.
It took her awhile to find any sort of shelter at all; a large trunk had fallen over a dip, and had then been overgrown. Underneath was drier than she could have hoped for, and she curled up and fell asleep immediately, pressed into the deepest part.
The rain was steadily increasing, and Alexei stared morbidly into the sky. He hated Zangarmarsh. He hated the fact that he'd been pulled off of duty and sent this way. With Shattrath under attack, holding the enemy off of the city's flanks had seemed direly important. There was nothing important here, but duty was duty and an order was just that.
Rain, rain, and yes, more rain. He could feel his armor rusting as he stood, and he was afraid to look at the sword he carried slung over his back. He contemplated his surroundings, pulling thoughtfully at one of his tentacles as he did so. It was getting late. The footing was bad, sinking under his considerable weight with every step he took, and he didn't want to risk it in the dark. Time to seek whatever shelter he could and carry on to the Harborage at first light…
He was pleased to find the overgrown spot, and much less pleased to realize it was already occupied. His hand was on the sword the moment he heard stifled breathing, and he dropped into a careful stalk. He needed that shelter, and was willing to fight over it…
He dropped his grip a moment later. He was willing to fight over it, yes, but not willing to fight one of his own. He could see little of the occupant, but enough to prove his identification… she, and that was definitely female, was one of his own. She was curled into a painfully tight fetal knot against the back of the indention, but that skimpy tail and those small, angled hooves could only mean one thing… Female draenei, one of those he was sworn to protect. One of his own very endangered race, out here... Perversely, her presence made this so much easier. She was something of his to protect. Some reason to be here, other than a coward's flight, ordered or not.
He pushed thickets of coarse grass around, creating a vision break and dropping the indention into darkness. Satisfied that he had hidden her and his chosen shelter well enough, he set a small fire and studied what he could of her. His concern heightened, this was no combatant. If she was, she'd be armed, armored… she appeared to be neither. She was dressed in clothing, which had originally been brown and black, but was now more green and brown with muck. "What are you doing out here like this?" he asked her back. He'd expected it to be a rhetorical question, she seemed deeply asleep and his voice was low, but she startled awake and floundered ungracefully around to face him. He raised his brows and showed her both empty hands when she stared at him in barely controlled panic. "It's all right, little one." He soothed. "You're safe."
Her eyes flicked from him to the sight breaks, obviously abashed that he had done so much around her without waking her. "Are you hungry?" He asked to get her mind off of that, and onto something more productive. He had some to share, it wasn't fancy, but it was filling.
"Yes." She breathed, taking the proffered strip of dried meat from him. "I'm sorry. You startled me."
"Hmmm." He stated, noncommittally. She should not be out here… "My name is Alexei…. And yours?"
"Ranith." She stretched out her legs. He closed his eyes for a second, speeding up his breathing to match hers, and reached with his soul. Was she what she appeared to be? And was she well? She was indeed what she appeared to be, and except for a few minor injuries and swellings, she was well.
"I'm fine." Her words, and the biting edge to them, pushed him away. "You don't need to do that."
"Caution is never an ill advised leaning." He quoted from the Prophet, and she arched a tired brow at him. "And I was concerned about your wellbeing. You don't seem to be… prepared for this. Where are you from?" He could already guess, but he needed to know for certain. She had been finely dressed. She was unused to this sort of travel, it was a miracle something hadn't already found her and snatched away one very lovely example of a young female of his race.
"Shattrath." She confirmed his suspicions. A city dweller, of course.
"What are you doing out here, alone?" Ordinarily, this would be unthinkable, but again, their world shattered around them. She had probably just fallen through the cracks and headed away from Shattrath.
"I was told to head to the Harborage. I left Shattrath four days ago…"
He kept his expression carefully neutral. He had also been sent to the Harborage four days ago, and had covered about twice the distance she had. Of course, if she'd left straight out of Shattrath, she had run into the marsh immediately. He'd been on firm footing until very recently.
"I didn't want to, but my parents and my teachers insisted." Her voice faded off. "I've finished my training…why...?"
Training. That sounded promising. He didn't want to linger where her mind was obviously going, so he asked it. "What training?" Perhaps she had some use other than surviving young female, if that wasn't valuable enough.
He bowed his head in thought. She was very young, perhaps a year or so younger than he himself was, which meant that the training she referred to was the bare minimum possible. But it meant she was useful and valuable, and helped answer some of his questions. She might be unarmed, unarmored, and soft, but she was hardly defenseless.
"And you, Vindicator Alexei? Why are you here?"
"Alexei will do." Definitely a city girl. So polite in spite of the muck drying and flaking off of her fine tunic. "I was called off of my post and sent to the Harborage. Much as you."
Dark concern crossed her lovely features, and she played with the tip of one of her tentacles. "They are sending vindicators off of the line? To come to Zangarmarsh instead of Shattrath? My parents are at Shattrath…!" Anger chased the concern away, and Alexei watched her. Calm resolve was commonly prized in his people, anger was dangerous, corruptible. To see such anger blatantly displayed, a mirror to his own rage, fascinated him. She might look like fluff, but she wasn't. "They're all I have… and we've left them to stand alone?" And it was gone, its fuel burned through. She was simply too tired and anguished to carry it further. He was not surprised when the tears followed, something had to give.
"Shush, little one." He sighed, resting a hand on hers. She tried valiantly to stifle them, obviously deemed it impossible, and turned back to her wall. "Absolutely not." He breathed in response. That was a cardinal sin, to turn away from the support of another. They were so few; all they had left were each other. "You do not turn your back on me when I stand beside you." He bundled his blanket over his lap and chest, there was no way he intended to remove his armor, and pulled her against him. She did not struggle, only cried the harder and quieter, until she grew heavy and limp. She slept as the marsh gave way into darkness, and after the fire had burned out, he did as well. It was not wise, but he needed sleep too. The Light would just have to see them through.
Ranith woke first, sheltered and protected by the mass of the Light sent vindicator. Like every adult male, he was immense, easily twice her weight and several inches taller, a bulwark of muscle and indefatigable fervor. And he was here, alive and whole, on the same path that her teachers had insisted she follow. That was heartening even if the rest of it was not. In the cold light of dawn, there was a logic she disliked… Shattrath was doomed to fall. Why grind through their precious young, like Ranith, like Alexei, to protect that which could not be saved? Again, such hard decisions.
"Good morning." She greeted when he stirred.
"Morning." He returned, tilting his head to listen before he committed himself to becoming a massive standing target. He finally did rise, peering cautiously around before he nodded at her that all was well. "Let's go. We've got a long way."
Of course. Ranith was not that familiar with this area, or really any other not encompassed by Shattrath's walls, but it couldn't be easy. In the stories, this part was always glossed over with 'they traveled until they arrived'. She felt his steady gaze on her as she took her first unsteady steps, and cursed him internally when he hopped up beside her. It was not fair. His sturdy legs ended with hooves the size of dinner plates, and they distributed his weight much better than hers did. His thick tail counterbalanced his great weight, hers was a laughable afterthought.
He restrained himself for a good hour, hobbling his strides and occasionally hiding his impatience by stalking back and forth to make it seem like he was cutting around to double check something that had gained his interest, but Ranith knew all too well he was growing impatient and disturbed. "You don't have to stay with me." She stated, hock deep in mud and frustrated beyond words. Was his protection and company really worth this? He made her feel slow and inept, and she didn't need any more reasons to feel worthless.
"The hell I don't." He growled, spinning to advance on her. She stood her ground, a resolve made so much easier by the fact it would take a great deal of shaking, pulling and squirming to extricate herself from the mud. He snatched her bag from her, giving it an experimental shake.
"You going to be gallant and carry my bag?" She asked, not bothering to bleed off the sarcasm from her voice. It weighed a good bit; Ranith was not certain what all it contained. Perhaps she should be, but it hurt too much…
"No." He snapped back, but contrary to his words, he slung it easily over one broad shoulder. "I'm going to be smart, and carry you."
"What?" That was an indignity she had never considered. He could do it, of course, but to actually bring it up…
"The longer we spend out here, the more likely it is that something will go wrong." His brows lowered as he stared around. "Once we make it to the road, you can make your own way."
"Road?" There had been one when she first made her way into the marsh, but it had run in the wrong direction, and she had not followed it.
"Road. Do you have the slightest idea where you're going?"
"Yes." He dragged his eyes from the gloom surrounding them and stared at her. "I've been to the Harborage before, my unit trained there."
Oh, great. He really did know. "Well, since you know where you're going, you came through the same pass I did, and fell over me, then obviously I'm heading in the right direction." It sounded better than the pat 'The Light will see me there' response.
"True enough." He agreed, grasping her under her armpits and lifting her out of her current predicament. Once he had her safely and securely on damp ground, he knelt before her. "Come on, little one. The quicker we get out of here, the better."
Pride warred with common sense. She wasn't a child, or an invalid. She should be able to do this… but he was correct. Her pride endangered both of them, and that was unacceptable. She wrapped an arm around his neck, and settled her weight on his shoulders. He surged back to his feet, apparently unburdened, and headed off in a jaunty, bobbing walk. "Where did you get the commander's bag?" He asked after the silence grew long.
"Take this, my daughter. It has everything you will need… As it kept me alive, let it keep you." The press of the aged leather in her hands, her father's familiar voice, touch, smell… "It was my father's. He gave it to me…"
"So your father is a vindicator?"
"Yes." Even this was a reminder, the last time she'd been carried like this; her father had borne her around the parade ground on his shoulders, her name shouted by his men as he had bellowed his laugh. "City peacekeeper." She felt his cringe through her body. The peacekeepers would stand until the city fell… there would have been no recall for them as Alexei had been called back.
"And your mother?"
"Rifleman, combat medic…also a peacekeeper."
He rested his hand on where her wrists crossed under the tentacles on his chin. "Siblings? Other family?" His voice was gentle, and Ranith buried her face in his long black mane of hair.
"I am an only. They had no others. You?" Anything to end that line of questioning, turn it around on him. No family survived untouched.
"My mother died when I was very young." The muscles in his shoulders bunched under his mail when he climbed another hillock, and Ranith could see the promised road before him. "She took the name of my father with her." That was odd, but not unheard of. Family was so important that it was rare that a child went unclaimed, but if the father had died before the birth, why pursue it? "I was raised by my grandmother. And by whoever was around. There you go, little one. Firm ground under those delicate little hooves." He planted her on the road, passing the bag back to her. "We'll make good time now."
Ranith sighed. He was right, as lightly encumbered as she was, without armor, heavy weapon, only the pack, meant she could easily keep up with him on this footing. Maybe she could regain some lost pride as she did so. "So," he continued, keeping pace with her easily enough. "You felt a calling?"
"Yes." That was one of the few things in her life that Ranith didn't doubt. She had been called to serve her people, and the Light, in the priesthood. As a vindicator, he must have felt much the same… her people produced unmatched paladins, and he looked to be a fine example of one.
"Plenty of reason to get you out of Shattrath, then." So cold, so logical. She just stared at him for a long moment until he finally sighed under the weight of her eyes. "Ranith. I know it's hard. Two weeks ago, you had parents who loved you, teachers who supported you, and a city you belonged in. Now you're wet, hungry, tired and hurting. I get that." His frown darkened, and the gaze he raised to her was vicious. "But I can't ignore just how valuable you are. And to remain valuable means you have to remain alive, otherwise you're just a hunk of meat. And that rots. Be what you are meant to be. We all have to be what we are meant to be, or all of this has been for nothing. Ten thousand years of struggle, for nothing. It's our turn to stand, Ranith. And we stand together."
The young priestess's mood was dire and Alexei contemplated her. Outwardly, she was as lovely as any he'd ever seen. Where his people normally followed his own coloration of blue skin and black hair, she had strayed with a much darker skin tone and rich mahogany hair. His eyes dropped to the bag she carried, and he frowned. She claimed to be the daughter of one of the vindicators charged with the final protection of the City of Light, and that was a probable truth. Shattrath had been full of vindicators, and many of them were peacekeepers. They made desirable spouses, desirable parents, stable, strong…
"What is your father's name?" He finally gave into his rising concern. She had been finely dressed when she had left Shattrath. She carried a commander's bag…
His heart fell. Any chance that her father might have been ordered to leave Shattrath was gone. He knew the name, even if he'd never met the man. He commanded one of the last ditch defense units… a unit that would make its final stand on the dais under the naaru. He'd sent his daughter, his only child away, and she had been given into Alexei's protection…if he could keep up with her. She was exacting payment for her wounded pride with every step. At least she'd been smart enough to accept the lift, or they'd still be back in the mud. "Mind the naga." He stated mildly, and she stopped cold.
"Naga. We'll pass fairly close to them." The statement had the desired effect of slowing her down and returning her to his side. It was truthful, but that didn't mean the truth couldn't be useful as well. "You ever see one?"
She shook her head. "Never been out of Shattrath before, not really. They took me to see the moths a few times, right outside the gates."
Your father's beloved and fair. Alexei grimaced. Poor man. Perhaps if his only child had been male, it would have not been so sheltered, so coveted. Her calling to the priesthood must have seemed a dream come true. Had all remained normal, Ranith could have lived out her life in Shattrath, deep in the safety of the Aldor priesthood.
"There." He pointed out a myrmidon, sunning himself on the creek bed, and she narrowed her eyes. If she'd been a young paladin, he would be cautious, but he was fairly certain priests were not given to the same rampant insanity of his own calling. And, as expected, she only stared at the male naga before nodding. If it was possible, she would avoid it, and all the others.
"They're… more attractive… than I thought." She stated, "Very colorful."
"True. They fight like demons, however. Let's try not to see that part."
"Right." She fell into step again, but without the earlier speed, close enough for him to reach out and grab if he needed to. He felt much safer with her that way. "How far away is the Harborage?" She asked when they were well away from the naga, and he considered the question. Now that they were on the road, the two of them made better time than his unit had traversing the same distance.
"We should reach it tomorrow."
She drooped, and he felt for her. It was a long way, and she'd already been going for five days. But it couldn't be helped. His job was just to get her there, safe and whole. "You have a beloved?" he asked, groping for some topic of conversation away from the probable death of her parents and fall of her birth city. If she had one, chances were a male who had been good enough for her would have also been sent back. It could be some hope, some reason to keep her going forwards instead of looking back. She was not married, she was still rather young and did not wear wedding bands, but she was more than old enough to have someone.
"No." The answer was abrupt. "No." she repeated, erasing the bile in her voice. "Never have. You?"
"None. Went straight from my training into my unit." And things had been strained enough to require his blade in defense of Shattrath. "Been busy trying to keep Shattrath free." And failing. If Shattrath fell, its resident naaru fell. The priesthood. And the Prophet… if he took the time to consider it, his head swam and his stomach turned. They'd followed the Prophet for ten thousand years, through hell… if they had lost that… what was left? Would his people become extinct in his generation? It was all too much to consider, and he stared at her. She was everything he was supposed to fight for. One of his people. One of the priesthood. As long as she lived and breathed, he had not failed. He did not have to face this darkness without the Light.
"Alexei. We must have faith." It was not an exhortation to have faith, in that statement she acknowledged she was also struggling.
"We will see what waits at the Harborage." He sighed, his eyes starting to rove for a place to settle down for the night. While he was a little less cautious with her standing behind him, every one of his people was a healer, and those with callings were better than any, he did not want to push his luck. A broken leg, or worse, could end this trip in a heartbeat. Those legs she was poised on, while graceful and decidedly lovely, were fragile. And he was not indestructible, much as he liked to think otherwise. "We'll settle for the night there." He inclined his chin towards a likely spot. It was not as fine as the one the night before, but the rain had also slacked to a fog.
"No fire here, little one." He noted, eying the surroundings. There was no way to hide one here. He dropped his gear and settled down, folding the blanket over his lap again and motioning to her. He felt the safest when she was close… so many things in this swamp could just vanish with her. He expected a complaint, but she rested against him in silence, drifting quickly off to sleep, her head in his lap, her knees tucked up under his armpit. And after awhile, Alexei gave up and dozed.
He woke to an unimpeded view of large cloven hooves and plate greaves, and a two handed blade resting point down against the ground between the hooves. "Good morning, young ones." A booming deep voice greeted when he shifted, and Alexei wished he could sound that cheerful. "You stopped so close to the Harborage?"
"I was not going to risk traveling in uncertain light, sir." The newcomer was draenei, a large male, in a vindicator's full plate gear. Alexei should be on his feet, but Ranith was slow to stir, only vaguely awake, and to stand would drop her unceremoniously on the ground.
"You have been trained to travel like that." The vindicator's eyes were still cheerful.
"I have, sir." Alexei finally just stood, supporting Ranith against him so she did not fall. "She has not."
Apparently large vindicators did not impress Ranith, who just flared her nostrils at the intruder and muttered, "That's right. Blame the priest."
"Priest?" Some of the cheer evaporated from the man's demeanor. "You are a priest? You are Ranith, daughter of Raynor?"
"I am." Alexei wasn't the only one confused by the immediate identification. She frowned at the newcomer, with no light of recognition on her face.
"Which makes you Alexei." His eyes bored into Alexei, measuring and thoughtful.
"We've been expecting you. The Prophet said you would arrive soon."
"He lives?" Ranith's breathless demand beat Alexei's out. "The Prophet has left Shattrath ahead of the siege?" If that were so, then some of the bleakness could rise from his heart. If he delivered Ranith, and himself, to the Prophet…
"Yes, he lives, and is at the Harborage. He waits for the last few…" The vindicator only shrugged his incomprehension. "The last few he says were sent to him. I do not know. He is the Prophet, I am not. This way, children."
Alexei was used to refugee camps; he'd spent enough of his life hopping between them to know what was right and what was not. This group at the Harborage was most certainly not the mass of refugees he'd been expecting. Shattrath had been evacuated, but they had not been evacuated here. There were no little ones. No old ones. No maimed or injured. The Harborage was full of young adult draenei, tall, healthy, unbowed. A great many young vindicators like Alexei mingled amongst them. He recognized the feeling, and the tasks they attended to… battlefield preparations. This was a battle camp, not a conglomeration of people. No dead weight here.
"In there." The vindicator who led them pointed the way into a corridor and then dropped back. This was obviously as far as he intended to go. Alexei stepped first, striding in the bobbing steps of a male in full walk speed, Ranith on his heels. Any doubts he still clung to faded when he stepped into the lavender light of the room. The first thing his eyes fell on was the naaru, bright; shining… he inclined his eyes, bringing his right fist to his heart. Beside him, he saw Ranith genuflect.
The Prophet of the Draenei was part and parcel of their people. He had never left, never hidden. He lived amongst them, and both had met him before. The voice was the answer to a prayer. "Prophet Velen." Ranith greeted, and when she raised her eyes, Alexei followed. Yes, it was. Much shorter than Alexei, actually shorter than Ranith, silver haired and sorrowful, the leader of the hard pressed Draenei inclined his head.
"You have answered the call. Good. And together. Good. Do you choose to stand together to face me, or do you prefer to do this alone?"
Face him? Alexei swallowed down his discomfort. There was no reason to face him. The greeting, alone and so personal, was unusual enough. "I promised to stand beside Ranith." Such promises were held. Now, in front of the silent naaru and the Prophet, they became so much more.
"And you, Ranith? Do you stand beside Alexei?"
"I…do. Yes. As long as you're not about to call us married." It was a snide answer that Alexei would have never considered, ever… and he froze as the Prophet moved off of the naaru's dais and closed with Ranith. Alexei was torn, half of him viewed the motion as a threat and wailed to intercede, the other half told him she got what she deserved. The Prophet reached up and rested a hand on her shoulder, leaning in close, much too close for Alexei to overhear him. Whatever he'd said to her took the wind right out of her sails, she froze, silent and pasty gray. "Do you stand beside Alexei?" He repeated slowly, and she nodded. "Yes, our Prophet, I do." She whispered.
"Good. Are you willing to stand in the breach, children? Together? The time has come again, and there is a place for the pair of you. Take it. Or do not. This is a leap of faith I cannot help you with. And it must be a decision for both of you. I will not take only one. Either you both come, or you both stay. You have some time to make it, but not much. Go."
Alexei bowed again, leaving quickly. "What did he say to you?" he hissed when Ranith exited the corridor. That was odd, very odd, and her training and calling was so much closer to understanding that than his was. He killed that which needed to die. He healed himself and his comrades so that they could keep killing without being killed themselves.
"He said, 'Yet.' That was all."
"Yet? What?" He'd been expecting something so much more insightful, or conversely, enigmatic, that it took him a moment to fit the word into the conversation. "As long as you're not calling us married." Had been Ranith's flippant retort. The Prophet's answer… "Yet." And the insistence that they remain together… "Oh. That's….fascinating. Let's see if we can find some real food. And clean up." That was nowhere he wanted to go. Ranith was not the kind of young woman he'd ever imagined himself with, she was lovely, refined, well raised. He was most comfortable with female vindicators just like him, rough and tumble fighters. If a matchmaker had suggested it, he'd be laughing, but this was the Prophet.
"Right." She agreed. "Both would be good…I'm a real mess."
He shrugged. Now was not the time and here was not the place to be worrying about her looks. Right now the only look that mattered was the fact she was alive and walking. Had this been what he was expecting, a refugee camp, he could breathe a little. This was not. She could not. "Do not relax too much." He warned slowly. "Ranith, this is not a refugee camp. We've been sent to fight."
"Back to Shattrath?" There was hope in her question that he hated to quash. If they were reorganizing to support the beleaguered capital, the Prophet and his advisors would have camped closer to it. So many of those called here had passed Shattrath on their way in. So many had worn themselves down coming through the marsh to arrive here.
"Probably not." He finally admitted. "If we were to back up Shattrath, we would have gathered closer to it. Shattrath stands alone." Once again, they had failed to hold ground. Once again, they fled before an onslaught. This time, it was not a story, a legend for the telling, it happened before him, on his watch. He was left standing before one he had sworn to protect, and he had failed. He bowed his head in abject defeat, dropping to one knee before her. This was not glory. This was not honor. This was merely a mitigation of loss.
"Alexei." She breathed, moving close and resting her hands on his shoulders. "We will stand as we always have. Together. That is what my parents fight for."
He hissed a denial, but accepted her proximity by wrapping a forearm around her legs. "They do not fight for that, Ranith. They fight for you." And he was fairly certain from what he saw here that what they fought for was about to thrust into danger. The Prophet's questions only made that the more probable.
"When it all comes down to it, Alexei, isn't that what we've always fought for?" She asked, smoothing his hair back from his forehead ridge.
"Most priests tell me I fight for the Light."
"I am not one to dispute the words of those who came before me." She said after a pause, and Alexei frowned. Her words hit where theirs had not, and he desperately needed her to uphold them. "But…" she continued. "Let the priests fight for such an abstract. Let everyone else fight for a tangible. Fight for whatever gives you strength when you have no more strength to give, Alexei. We are your people. And we are of the Light. So, fighting for us is fighting for the Light."
"I need to let whoever's in charge know I've arrived." He sighed, releasing his grip on her and rising to his full height. "Then, perhaps we can get some food and settle down somewhere for the night."
"Certainly." She agreed, moving away. It took a long moment before he realized just what he'd done, and just what her answer had been.
"Hello, Ranith. I am relieved to see you made it here, intact, and fairly unmolested." There was an edge under the statement, and she banished the frown that rose at the words.
"Good afternoon, Exarch Varinus." She greeted slowly, turning to the man her father claimed as best friend. As she was expecting, his eyes were on Alexei as the much younger vindicator moved to mingle with the combatants and find where he needed to be. He had the same measuring and disapproving stare that her father would have if he'd just come up on Ranith being held by a rather disreputable looking young male. She understood her father's care, but there was always something under Varinus' caution that put her on edge.
"They ordered you from Shattrath."
"Shattrath will fall." Surely it was better that Ranith be here, free, with the Prophet, than the guaranteed death she would face at Shattrath. Surely…but it almost seemed as he did not see that.
"Velen plans some sort of confrontation here, and he is being deliberately close mouthed about it."
"He is the Prophet."
"Make him no promises, Ranith."
That was heresy, and Ranith did not bother to hide her expression at the words. "Make the Prophet no promises?" She echoed uncertainly. That was on the same level as being asked to make her people no promises. Velen had led them for generations, now was not the time to lose faith in him.
"Has he asked for them already?"
"He has asked me to stand in the breach." And who was she to consider denying that request?
"Yes. He has asked those who were asked to come here to do the same."
And you weren't one of them. Somehow, Ranith understood that implicitly. She had been asked to be here. Alexei, likewise. But not Varinus. Velen had been expecting her, expecting her to arrive with Alexei, but this one was not part of the plan.
"Who is the boy?" He demanded when the silence grew long, Ranith unwilling to answer a question that was not even asked. Would she stand in Velen's breach?
"The vindicator?" she asked stubbornly, although she knew that was exactly who he was asking about. He needed to be reminded that, as a full blown vindicator, Alexei deserved some level of respect, even from an exarch.
"Fine, yes, the vindicator."
"Alexei. He was pulled off of one of the lines east of Shattrath, and he came across me on the way here. We've been traveling together."
"Ranith, just be careful. Things are not as they were, the rules have changed. You are no longer safe in Shattrath. No longer under the watch of your trainers. We tried our best to keep you safe, and perhaps we did you an injustice. But we did what we thought was best for you." He crossed his arms, still looking after the long vanished Alexei. "And you made it so easy for us. I realize you will make Velen the promises he asks for, Ranith. You were raised better than to deny him. But that one… That one I understand. Be careful with him. This is the warning your father should be here to give, but he is not. You are beautiful, Ranith, and that one is well aware of it. Yes…" he breathed, "He is a fine, fine one. Perhaps even good enough for you. But make him work for it, or he'll not appreciate what you give him. He's a wild one, he needs a firm hand."
Ranith blinked in amazement… all of this, was merely a preamble to the 'be careful with the young male' lecture? It was so hilarious she almost let the laugh go, but held onto a respectful silence. "No, Ranya." He growled. "You do not understand! You are only now beginning to comprehend what it is like to give over your life, your safety, to another. Velen said you would come, and that you would come with him. Velen speaks not of you, Ranith, but of the pair of you. He sees you as part of a couple. He readies for conflict, and he sees you as paired with a vindicator. You will be put into harm's way, beside that young man. And you will grow to need him. And once that happens, anything he asks for, you will give him. If he doesn't value you before then, he'll use you and just keep going onto the next one. Velen is making decisions for the people as a whole. He is too busy to worry about little things like this, but I am not."
"I will be careful." She promised, and for some reason, he seemed to find those words amusing.
"I'm sure you will, Ranya." He murmured, mournfully. "I'm sure you will."
Alexei frowned, wandering amongst the gathered mass of combatants. He recognized few, and none were from a unit he had ever served with. He was alone for the first time since he'd sworn his sword in service. These were strangers, as much as any of his people could be. It was a relief to finally clap eyes on Ranith, and he recognized her immediately in spite of the fact she'd changed into the bright robes of her station.
"Ranith." He hopped to her side, and she smiled a greeting. "It's good to see you."
"It's only been an hour, Alexei." She teased back, and he only shrugged.
"It doesn't feel that way." He finally admitted when her stare didn't shift. "It's like I'm not really here. Like…" Like no one was willing to acknowledge him. Everyone around him was focused and going and he was left to the side, left behind… Preparations went on just beyond him, and he was not part of them. "I saw you talking to that exarch. Does he know what's going on? Why we're here?"
"No. All he knows is that Velen prepares for combat." Her eyes dropped from him to study her surroundings and the obvious proof of that statement. "And those here will be the ones doing the fighting. Obviously those who evacuated Shattrath went elsewhere. This is…" She planted the butt end of her staff in the dirt and scrutinized those around her.
"The best we have to offer." He put her thoughts into words. He'd seen plenty of his own prepare for war, and this was the cream. If he could hand pick an army, it would be this one. "The only old are those who have come to see what is going on, and they are not part of the preparations. There are no young. No injured, ill or slow." And the only question left was did they stand as part of this? Velen had made it obvious; he would take only the pair of them. "Are we part of the best?"
"Of course we are."
He nodded, that was all the affirmation he needed. He was going, wherever he was called to go. "Then we sleep." They needed to be as fresh as possible for what came, he was certain they were not to stand here. This was merely a staging point.
"Alexei and Ranith." Alexei looked up from his scrutiny of Ranith's gear. She had not bothered to inventory and check any of it, so he was doing it himself. It was as he would expect, knowing its source… well packed, conscientious, the essentials present and nothing superfluous to weigh her down, an expression of love and care.
"Yes, sir?" He asked, clambering to his feet and studying the new arrival. Another vindicator, older, much more seasoned, but still in the prime of his life. His gear had seen hard use and good care.
"You are with us." The man stated simply enough, his eyes dropping to the task Alexei had been involved with. "You are going to be with my strike team. Your companion," his eyes went to Ranith, who stood by in the shadow. "I am told is no true healer."
That was news to Alexei, who had not bothered to ask. She was a priest…so therefore she healed. "I can heal." She stated, "But it is not what I am best at. We have not told Velen we were going…"
The stranger's brows lowered. "But he has told me you are. So are you, or aren't you?"
"We are." Alexei said quickly, perhaps too quickly. The man looked first at him, and then carefully at Ranith, relaxing only when she nodded agreement.
"Good. Then you are with us." He reached out a hand to Alexei. "Laretos." His grip was firm, steady. "I hear you've seen combat, the eastern approach to Shattrath?"
"Yes." Alexei confirmed, and the man squatted to view Ranith's pack cautiously, picking up the well worn knife and turning it over in his large, blunt hand.
"And she has not."
"That's correct." Alexei glanced over at her, to see how she was handling being discussed as if she were not present. "She'll be in the rear…" Usually, that's where the anchorites were, even if she had limited use as a healer, she would then fall to rear guard security.
"I've been told we have no rear. Either you're in a strike team, or you're not coming. She's with us. In the front. She's one of the few priests we've got… make certain she's ready to go. We move fast, we move hard, and we're not coming back. She's yours, so take care of her. We move tomorrow at first light… Both of you pick up your rolls and move over to my group."
"Do we know where, yet?" Ranith was as ready to go as he could get her. The rest was up to her. If she had what it took, or not, was a measure of her heart and will.
"No." the man snapped back. "What I just gave you was the first, and only, information I've been given. That's as much as we go with… we are in the Prophet's hands now."
"Yes, sir." Alexei watched him go before staring blankly at the gear before him. It was bad… very bad. What he knew combined with what he didn't all screamed that. He repacked her bag and handed it silently up to her. She shouldered it and her roll, equally quiet, and followed him over to the group.
He measured them, and found little solace in what he saw. They were exactly what he feared after what he'd been told… each had the hard focus of a combat veteran, well beyond what he'd experienced. He was the green one in the group, and Ranith was an absolute virgin.
"Alexei. And Ranith." The eldest, a woman in armor so worn that its decoration was anyone's guess, gave what was beginning to be an annoyance… did everyone recognize them, while he recognized no one? "If you need anything, now is the time to ask. And if you're reconsidering…now is the time for that, as well. Tomorrow is the end of that."
"No." He was impressed. Ranith managed a cold steel response in spite of everything, and he let her word speak for him. Might as well, since he didn't seem to exist as a separate entity. Since he was part of this unit, he helped himself to some of their food without a second thought, passing some off to Ranith.
"Good. Didn't think so, but hey…it's what we're telling everybody. We're just happy to have the pair of you."
Odd. Alexei couldn't think of any reason why they would be. He was happy to be in a unit again, but why any unit would want a fairly green trainee and a squeaky new priest was beyond him. But questions like that were beyond him. He just killed things. If Ranith wanted to ask, good. If not, fine. She apparently didn't, content to fold out her roll and fall into an almost immediate sleep on it.
Morning came quickly, and as promised, they moved at first light. And as promised, they moved fast. Alexei expected that, what he didn't expect was the turn north instead of south, and he didn't expect to follow the Prophet forward.
"North?" Ranith asked under her breath, and he glanced in her direction. She had chosen to drop the robes again, going back to the same brown and black she had traveled Zangarmarsh in. Laretos had made no comment either for or against her decision, but Alexei could feel his new commander's complete relief. The white and blue robes of an Aldor priest were unmistakable, and a favored targeting point of the enemy. There were so many vindicators in the company that Alexei's shining mail made him merely yet another in the group, and was safe, but they traveled with so few priests…
"North." He agreed slowly. Shattrath and the other toeholds they had managed to retain control of rested to their south, across the marsh. It had been a long time since they'd had any presence north… He was suddenly very happy to be traveling with one of their few priests, virgin… target… it didn't matter. So many had died in the north… Facts stated that it swarmed with the enemy, and rumors whispered that it swarmed with their own restless dead. Alexei had faced down the enemy before, and they died…. But those that didn't stay dead? He'd been trained to handle them, yes. But the idea unnerved him; he wanted to kill the enemy. That he was comfortable with.
"Stay to the middle of the unit." Laretos' second, Eudolia, snapped when he drew up with her, and he fell back. Ranith had not followed him up, and he grimaced. Combat priests maintained the safest position, the middle, of any unit, and now that he had apparently been volunteered to keep her safe, that was his position. "We must be going through the caves… it's the only way north."
Again, north, the ground held in force by the enemy, forsaken by the draenei when they had been unable to hold it. Alexei nodded to himself, feeling calm descend. He was committed. The time for doubt was over. The best of his people was on the move again, following the Prophet, and headed deep into their enemy's grasp.
Had there ever been a time when Ranith hadn't been walking? Just one hoof in front of the other, too tired to swing her tail, hot, thirsty… blinded by the sun on baked dust, the only touchstone of reality the thick tail of the vindicator in front of her… which had halted… she stumbled, held upright by Alexei when he grabbed her. "Shhhh." He hissed, and pointed…up. "Gronn."
Gronn were one of those things, like man'ari and dragons, which Ranith knew existed. Of course there were gronn. Of course there were man'ari, why else did they run? And dragons, yes. They were said to be huge, as tall as the gates of Shattrath… how silly was that? Now that statement didn't seem quite as silly as it had…
"Will we have to take it?" Alexei asked calmly, and Ranith's heart skipped a beat. Take that? The damn thing was as tall as an orcish watchtower…. Mottled in the same dark brown and black as she wore, hunched and meandering, but definitely meandering in their direction…. Its knuckles barely skimming the ground as it moved.
"Yes." Laretos stated in the same calm. "Before it sees the lead element… We can't let it charge."
And the Prophet riding with the lead element. Ranith swallowed down dust and stared at the gronn, trying to encompass it as a target. "Go!" he yelled, a call taken up by dozens of other strike team commanders. The gronn paused, twisting as it scanned the ground for the source of the noise. They were about as bright as an average ogre, which was to say not very, but were far above mere animal intellect.
Rifle reports shattered the air, and Ranith began casting. First cast, divine shield on the charging Alexei. If he was the one given the onerous duty of keeping her safe, he should receive the bounty of her attention. That would leave him untouched for a little while, not long… but it should survive his first contact. Now… She narrowed her eyes at the target… time to inflict a whole lot of pain, which was what she was best at.
It was over in heartbeats, one gronn poorly prepared for the focused attack of the best of her people. She understood Alexei's calm when the very short fight was over, this was nothing for them. If this was so simple… then how hard was hard? If a creature of this size was a joke, what were the man'ari? What was capable of pushing them to the brink of extinction?
"Let's keep it up." Alexei stated, returning, still shining in the shield. He'd never even been touched… never made it close enough to swing. "Before the neighborhood comes to see what all the noise was."
Ranith sighed, her eyes drawn to the front of the column… Velen, mounted on a war elekk, stood on a promontory of red rock overlooking the carnage that had once been a gronn. She was not surprised when he pointed north, as steadfastly north as he had always, still through this Light forsaken mess. "How far do we go?" She asked wonderingly. They could not keep this pace up for long…
"I don't know." He breathed in answer. "The column can't keep this up much longer." His eyes scanned the horizon, pale blue bleeding into pale dust, and an endless vista of jagged rocks. It was all just…nothing. For miles. She missed beautiful Shattrath, and the forest that surrounded it. Even the marsh had not seemed this formidable. "How are you doing?"
"I'm… tired." She finally admitted. If she was tired, what was he? If she was hot, what was he? He was the one in armor, and compared to some of the others, he wasn't even heavily armored.
He sighed, dropping to a knee before her. She half expected another dose of gallantry, but did not get it… instead he expertly pinched just inside of the tendon over her left pastern. She snatched her foot up, thrown off balance by the nerve pinch, and he steadied her on his shoulder while he studied her hoof. "Sit." He ordered, ignoring the ebb and flow of the column reorganizing around them.
She complied, too tired to fight. "How bad is it?" she asked, shutting her eyes and letting her head fall back. There was only one thing that would have gotten this reaction…
"Yes, Alexei, how bad is it?" Laretos demanded, the strike team forming around them.
"It's not through to the quick. She's not limping…yet." He carefully turned her hoof in his hands. "I'll see what I can do… her feet are long anyway."
She fought a flush… her hooves had been long enough to gain the graceful dish fashionable in Shattrath before the evacuation. After that, worrying about the length of her feet had just seemed…trivial. And then, she'd been moving.
"Orders are to carry on, Alexei. Get her on her feet, and we'll deal with it when we camp."
His gaze grew stormy, and he dropped her foot. "Whenever that will be…"
"As you said, Alexei… let's go before the neighborhood comes to see what all the noise was… I'd prefer to not fight the Legion if I can help it."
That statement was enough to get Ranith on her feet without any other comment, crack be damned. Forget the gronn, forget the enemy…the Legion…no. It was enough to silence Alexei's complaints as well. "Come on, Ranya." He finally gave in, moving on, his despondency contagious.
The world just…ended. Ranith stared at the end, and at the rickety bridge, in great doubt. The sky was gone. And the land stopped. She had heard of it, of course, but some part of her refused to believe that the world had been shattered as the stories told. How could a world be shattered? "We camp here." Laretos ordered, apparently unconcerned about the gulf of nothing visible just yards from where he stood. "Alexei, tend her feet. Eat. Sleep."
Alexei also seemed less than impressed by the end, giving it barely a glance as he delved in his bag for nippers and files. "You get used to it." He stated, motioning at her to sit. When she did, he cradled her left hoof in his hands. "Does it hurt?"
"Good. Still not through." Ranith was used to seeing nippers and files, but the chisel Laretos appeared with was a little more upsetting. "Still not through." Alexei repeated, this time for the commander's benefit. He only grunted in reply, snatching her hoof up.
"She's got those damned pretty feet." Laretos grumbled, and Ranith was happy she was too dark to flush easily. "We'll give her one hell of a trim, clear up all this chipping and then chisel and burn the crack. She's never been to the end, has she?"
"Never been out of Shattrath before." Alexei answered for her, and Ranith prayed for a hole she could crawl into.
"It's just fine, Ranith." Laretos murmured, taking a brutal amount of a hoof off with one strong nip. "You're doing as well as anyone else here. We should have dealt with your feet before we left… I just never thought we'd travel like this."
"So you've seen the…end?" she asked, anything to help ignore the butchery the two men were committing to her feet.
"I've seen the end in Terokhar." Alexei stated, referring to the area around Shattrath, the forest and the area that surrounded the doomed city of Auchindoun. "The east, where the elves are… I was on duty there before this." He glanced towards the fragments of land floating in blackness beyond the edge. "It was…nothing like this."
Alexei was struggling for just the right angle on a nip when Laretos chuckled. "We've lost her." A quick glance proved him correct; she was dead asleep, flat on her back, both feet in the air as they struggled with them.
"Poor kid." Alexei mourned, finally getting what he needed and snapping off another section of hoof. The graceful length of her hooves was gone, the dish now blunted and straight.
"Never anywhere but Shattrath before this?"
"No." Nothing in her life had prepared Ranith for this journey, except that she had the heart and soul of a draenei.
"So that's where you met her?" The smell of burning hoof filled the air as Laretos carved out the end of the crack and burned it in hope of stopping the split.
"No, I met her in Zangarmarsh…. A little over a week ago."
Laretos paused, raising questioning eyes to Alexei. "You've only known her a week?" At the answering nod, he sighed, releasing Ranith's foot. "The way the Prophet spoke made it seem as if you had been together forever."
"Any idea where we're going?" Or why? Or when it ended? Alexei had pretty much reached the end of his strength. Ranith was slight, and was losing more and more weight every moment that passed. Right now it was anyone's guess which of them caved first.
"No." Laretos gazed towards the bridge that led over nothing to the next fragment of land. "My orders are to get everyone ready to go again." He frowned. "Apparently, we've been taking it slow up until now."
"Slow?" Alexei demanded, horrified. "Ranith is…"
"Doing as well as anybody else is, just as I told her. I suggest you follow her advice and get some sleep while you still can."
Food and sleep worked wonders on Ranith, who bounced back in the two day break much better than Alexei could. He was still tired when the order came to cross the bridge, and to carry on north. And if it were possible, they had been going slowly in comparison to the pace set out.
"What a forsaken blight." Ranith growled beside him, and he nodded in agreement. That pretty much described it. Zangarmarsh was harsh, wet and murky, but at least it had been alive. The mountains beyond, dry and desolate, but still whole. This was shattered, broken, dead purple ground floating against a backdrop of blackness. This was what the Legion did…. And it was filled with elves. Pointy eared, wraithlike demons with the death of his people in their hearts… he hated them all, and they were everywhere he turned. Now he understood the speed of their advance, if not its reason. The only hope they had was to keep moving forward, as quickly as possible.
"Form by column, march."
The order jolted Alexei out of his reverie, and he followed Ranith's gaze upwards. There, shining against the darkness of the nothing, a sight he had never believed he would see… the greatest example of what his people had been capable of, which had enabled them to flee numerous other worlds before the fury of the Legion… the inter-dimensional fortresses kept here, at Tempest Keep. Lost here, at Tempest Keep, locking the draenei here after the Legion had discovered them again. Seized by the elves, and held as their capital, a direct assault against this was suicide… but no less suicidal than being ground down one at a time fleeing Shattrath.
Ranith had paled, her complexion lightening enough to show the vertical string of dapples down the middle of her forehead in high relief. Every female had them, hers were just normally less visible than most. "Alexei?" she whispered.
"Yes, little one?" He was surprised he still had a voice. And he was vastly surprised it was as loud and firm as it was.
"Yes, little one." He sighed, eying the crystalline pink glory hanging above him. If this was remotely humorous, he'd call it a joke. But all he felt was exhaustion and nausea. Maybe if he had time to set his nerves to this, he'd feel better, but it was obvious that waiting was in no one's plans. And they couldn't wait… they were running on borrowed time, sitting on the doorstep of the elves' capital fortress.
"When the portal opens, go through… don't stop. Don't hesitate, just go, and keep going." There was an edge of incredulity to Laretos' voice, as if he could not quite grasp the orders he was giving. "The bridge will be to your right. We need to get there. No matter what, keep going. If we bog down it's all over."
And we're dead. Alexei's mind helpfully put the unspoken phrase in. By the expression on Ranith's face, her mind was also in a helpful mood. "Portal!" A cacophony of voices rose, and he banished the terror in his soul by charging, Ranith in his wake.
Only the panicked idea of being left behind pushed Ranith forward on Alexei's heels. This was not the glory she'd imagined in her unspoken dreams. In those dreams, she was cool, confident, stately, garbed in the robes of her office, an unflappable advisor to some shining vindicator or exarch. Not tacky with sweat and panic, one mote in a dust storm of mayhem, still wearing the same clothes she'd been in for a week. In the dreams she knew exactly what to do, and none of them ever had her literally hanging off of the end of some male's tail because she was terrified to lose him. She had the tip of Alexei's tail in her left hand, her staff in the right when he boiled through the portal onto the deck of the fortress. She had the vaguest comprehension of elves, lots of them, and the high pitched keen of arrows, before Alexei's charge yanked her forward, through the nearest group of elves. She was shocked to realize just how small they were, her first thought were that these were juveniles, or even female, but these were adult males, a fraction of Alexei's brutal mass.
"Get the damned door!" Laretos snarled, the plate clad bulk beside her, who had just been labeled friend, not Alexei in her focusing mind. "Before they start after the priest!"
That was most certainly not good. She was aware from training that she was a prime target, more appealing than the swarming vindicators… They'd be looking…for her. She might not be garbed in robes, but she stood out from a sheer lack of armor. Just shoot the one not in mail, not in plate…
"Got it!" Alexei yelled, securing the doorway by sheer force of weight, backed up by Laretos. "Go!"
The bridge is to your right… And apparently so was half the entire elven population of Draenor. They might be little, but there were a lot of them… Instinctively, Ranith brought up her shield, and the one in the lead yelled and pointed directly at her. She didn't understand a word of his language, but "Kill the priest!" was fairly comprehensible. She ducked back under Laretos' elbow, back into the safe press between the two great males. If someone would have told her a month ago that the stench of the pair of them would be the sweetest, most soothing smell in the world, she would have laughed, but in the chaos and panic, it was.
"Don't stop!" Laretos howled when those immediately behind her sensed her fall back, and hesitated. "It's just the priest going under cover! You keep going!"
If we bog down, we die. And it certainly looked like they were going to bog down just inside the doorway, the assault over before it had even really started. She could see the elf doing the pointing and yelling, and she took a long, deep breath, her hooves spreading into casting stance. You little bastard… eat this. As she'd been taught to heal, she'd been taught to inflict pain… merely the reflection of the spell. It had caused some consternation among her teachers when they realized that the beautiful young Ranith was so much better at the pain part than the healing part, and now, for the first time, she had an appropriate target to unleash it on. And unleash she did, funneling the past six weeks into it, hitting the elven commander with everything she had.
He was screaming again, pointing again, and he had her as the target again. That should bother her, but it didn't. Unlike the vindicators around her, she could keep shielding, and if he was pointing at her, he wasn't pointing at Alexei beyond her.
None of those silly dreams ever had anything this stupid, even in those, she'd been smart enough to hide behind the nearest large, armored individual. She hadn't known when she was dreaming those that panic and adrenaline chased away common sense.
The elf turned to her, his helmet shattered, his fiery hair flowing down his back. I didn't realize they were so small. I didn't realize they were so pretty. Why am I not afraid? Was this what it was like when you died at Shattrath, Mama? Papa? Wh…
Pain lanced down her chest…the shield had failed and she'd been too fixated to recast it. She was now the proud owner of an elven knife, hilt deep just under her collarbone…
"Ranya!" Alexei's howl was audible even over the chaos, and her mind returned to some measure of sanity. Pain… her pain, was bad. It required attention. She grasped the hilt and pulled, trying to ignore the stomach curdling sucking sound. I am Ranith, gifted of the naaru... There was the bright mark of affirmation on her forehead as she tapped into her birthright, the wellspring of healing that each of her people was granted, and the pain deadened. I am fine, Alexei. Hold your ground.
Vicious anger crossed the elven commander's face when she stopped swaying and threw the knife away. He was screaming in rage, but she felt the press of others at her back as the column pushed through. Keep going. The commander took one look at that and ran, disappearing around a corner.
"Go, you silly fool." Laretos bellowed in her ear, and Ranith could have sworn he was laughing. Why, she couldn't even begin to guess. There was nothing funny here, nothing at all. "We'll get him later." Just keep going, to the bridge. To her right… the same direction her target had disappeared in. Great big surprise there. She fell into step in the middle of the column, following Alexei. She eyed the end of his tail for a long moment, then grasped it again, the same as she'd done to her father when she had been a child in a confusing crowd. Alexei tilted his head, catching a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, and gave her the barest nod of acknowledgement. Hold on if you like, I don't mind.
They passed the corner, and there were more elves. This time, both sides were expecting it, and this encounter lacked the free chaos of the doorway. Pretty Boy was not present at the makeshift cover, and Ranith glanced at Laretos. He's gone to the bridge. He's gone to the naaru… Without pressure, the naaru here could be counted on, if not for overt aid, then for a lack of resistance. If it was pressured…and this was another bog down…
"Ranith." Laretos dropped his hand on her shoulder. "Go."
She surged to her hooves, shielded, and charged. There were few things in existence quicker and more agile than a draenei female, and she cleared the firing position easily, creating the diversion he'd been counting on. She backed down the hallway behind them, casting as she went. It was a clear path to the next corner, and Ranith turned her head when she backed far enough to view it. Pretty Boy stood there, just off of the corner, very close. He grinned at the same moment she saw him, waved at her, and leveled a crossbow.
Damn. The sense of stupidity and adrenaline rose again, only worse. This time, the safety of Alexei and Laretos was so very far away… She could keep shielding for only so long before she wore herself out. She had managed to break the covered position, and given enough time, they'd wear down the obstacle. Except she didn't have that sort of time. She couldn't stand… which left only one option… run. Hers wasn't the only column here. Velen was here, headed for the bridge… that way. Maybe his elite column was farther… maybe she could intercept them, drag Pretty Boy into them… Last ditch hope, the naaru…
She leapt into motion, hitting Pretty Boy in the shoulder as she passed him and jarring his shot. Lightweight. That blow would have never fazed a draenei male, never. He was yelling again, as Ranith worked herself up to full speed, hopping along. He's going to get a shot, or two. Probably the two before the hallway opened up and she had maneuvering room. Shield not going to hold… This was about to hurt… and it did. The shot took her low in the back, a numbing harsh pain. Poison. Little bastard used pois…
The hallway opened up into a large chamber, dominated by what could only be the remnant statue of some great draenei that the elves had not bothered to deface yet. Her mind barely grasped how wrong that was when it moved. She locked her knees in a vain attempt to stop her forward impetus, but the floor was smooth and she merely succeeded in falling on her rump and sliding across until her speed faded. No. Anything but this. Pretty Boy and his army of enraged little elves… Why did I leave Shattrath? Why?
The man'ari turned slowly, the vast room almost too small to hold him. If Ranith could stand, the top of her head would barely clear the top edge of his hoof, but she couldn't. Shock, panic and the poison in her system kept her down. If she was lucky she would die now.
Pretty Boy entered behind her, she could hear him, preceded by his laughter. He said something to the man'ari, who only tilted his head and watched wordlessly. Did they even still speak? Yes, they did… he proved it by speaking, not to the elf in whatever language he had been spoken to in, but to Ranith in eredar.
"He says you've been a pain in the ass." His voice was almost lovely, amused and a little saddened.
The same perversity that had caused her to back talk Velen rose again. "He's the pain in the ass." She retorted. "That's about where he shot me."
The man'ari paused as if he didn't quite understand the dialect she responded in, and then he laughed. "Velen is here." He noted, his empty gaze tracking, not the motionless Ranith, but Pretty Boy. "I feel him."
Her perversity was shattered, and Ranith was unable to come up with an answer to that. She couldn't acknowledge it, even though it was obvious he already knew. "Such loyalty." Again, the sadness… the voice was so lovely she just wanted to fall asleep to it. "He has put you through ten thousand years of hell, and you still love him."
There was an argument to rebut that, if Ranith could just think straight. But she couldn't, and she didn't really want to try. And on second thought, there was no reason not to fall asleep to his voice, because he did not stop talking.
Where was Ranith? Alexei snarled as he fought. Why had she gone so far? She was not where she should be, they'd managed to hold the defenders. She should be on just the other side of the position, but she wasn't…. She'd been moving backwards… he turned the corner on top of Laretos, who knelt in the hallway beyond. No Ranith, but his eyes fell on what had attracted such attention. Everything that Alexei knew, besides his own people, bled red. The blood trail in the corridor was not red. It was the same blue as his own, and Ranith was the only draenei beyond this point.
He pushed forward, following it. She'd been moving fast, until something had stopped her abruptly. He stared around the empty room in confusion, until he saw her in the very center of the room…
"Alexei…" Laretos growled in warning, as if he needed one to realize there was something truly wrong with what he saw. "Don't touch… that."
"What have we here?" The Prophet's voice asked, and Laretos gave way immediately. "Hmmm. Ranith." He frowned, moving closer, and Alexei followed him. She lay perfectly positioned, on her back, under the lavender skylight that dominated the room, in the middle of a circle carved into the floor. Her hands were open, and her head was tilted slightly to the side. She was clean, and absurdly well dressed, and Alexei was certain she had not been carrying the robe she wore.
Velen looked puzzled for a moment before he dropped to his knees. It was then that Alexei realized Ranith wasn't so much lying as floating suspended in the air. "That looks painful." The Prophet chuckled, then he peered at her right hand. "Definitely painful. But you, young lady, need to stop napping on the job." He grabbed her ankle and with a complete lack of ceremony pulled her off the circle. The painful comments had not been directed at Ranith, Alexei realized, getting a good hard look at the circle. The elven commander had been crushed into the floor, his blood filling the carving. "Somebody has a flair for the theatrical." Velen sighed, righting Ranith, who then floated feet down just above the floor. Feet…. Alexei frowned. The hard trim on her feet was gone, she lacked the overly long dish she'd had before, but she had a good inch of strong new growth. The chipping and cracking was gone, even the gouged out cracks had vanished.
"Wake up." Velen ordered, and her eyes popped open.
"My…Prophet." She breathed in confusion, "What?"
"Later." He chuckled. "We have things to do today. Go, and take your heart with you." He reached up and patted her on the head, before turning to Laretos. "She's fine. Keep going."
He vanished into the corridor, and when he was well and gone, Alexei turned back to Ranith. "Are you fine?" he asked gruffly, uncertainly. She raised her eyes from her hand, considered the question for a moment, and then nodded.
"I am, Alexei. Let's go."
He considered it a moment longer. Any idiot could figure out something untoward had happened… but if the Prophet and Ranith both agreed she was well, then he was happy to accept the news as good. She fell into step right behind him again, and he missed it when she hung a thin chain around her neck, the chain she'd been clutching in her right hand.
"Up the ramp." Laretos ordered, and Alexei was happy someone seemed to have some idea of where to go. The ship was a draenei design, most closely resembling Shattrath in his experience, but it was still an unfamiliar maze of brightly lit corridors and arches. Even if it correlated exactly to Shattrath, he'd only been to the City of Lights a few times.
"The naaru is in front of us." Ranith stated. "Keep going straight and we'll run into it."
Alexei nodded, thankfully there was a straight option… She was following instinct, as an Aldor priestess, her sworn duty was to serve and protect the naaru. Minor things like corridor layouts did not fall easily into the naaru is that way.
He heard combat, the reports from draenei riflemen and the slam of swords, and he leapt into a run. He was not as speedy as Ranith, but once he got his considerable weight moving, he was not slow. The naaru's chamber was alive with strife, he barely had a moment to comprehend that Ranith had shielded him before he vaulted over the terrace railing into the heart of things. The best way to handle elves was to confront them head on, they were small, fragile, and accomplished casters… conflict at range was not advisable. He had to get close enough to bring his physical superiority into play, and rest his trust in the priest following him. He had never engaged with that trust before, he'd been in units with priests, but had never felt like he, and he alone, was the focus of their attention. With Ranith watching from the terrace on level with the naaru she served, that was exactly what he felt. He felt invincible… And the Prophet was casting from the opposite terrace, the leader of his people… Every doubt Alexei harbored vanished, this was going to work. Release the naaru, and they would hold this wing of the fortress. They would have taken something back, recovered something rightfully theirs. A step forward instead of a retreat, and he was so tired of retreating.
"Kill them all, Alexei!" Ranith was screaming from the terrace, deep in her casting stance, her eyes never leaving him as he charged down the first elf holding the naaru captive. "Make them bleed! Crush them!"
His mind conjured a vision of the elven commander, ground into the floor, and his step faltered. Something was not right…
"Go, do as she says, she will keep you up." Velen's voice in his head, calm and assured, and the momentary falter was gone. For his people to survive, for the naaru to be free, these needed to die. His decision was made for him, keep striding forward.
Something was…while not wrong…not quite right. There was a hole in Ranith's comprehension large enough to drive a herd of elekk through. Something was missing, erased, gone… Somehow, she'd gotten here, wherever here was. But here was fine. There were plenty of elves here, the killing was good. Alexei was here. The naaru was here. They needed to live, and the elves needed to die. She'd figure out the minor details later.
Hurried footsteps in the corridor immediately beneath her, and Ranith took a deep breath. Target. Yes, indeed, target. The first visible was a rather large elven male in full black plate, their version of a vindicator. Alexei's target. And on his heels, a beautiful woman in a flowing crimson and gold robe. My target. Ranith did not allow the woman full entrance into the room before she hit her, after all, all was fair in genocide. The woman screamed, and it was a wonderful sound…
Her companion looked up; obviously he'd been expecting her to back him up, not to become the first hit. His eyes, so brightly colorful, just like jewels, rose to Ranith, and she gave him the same impudent wave as Pretty Boy had done before he'd leveled the crossbow…. What crossbow? What? Who?
He pointed and snarled, but this time the words made sense, but they sounded as if they echoed down a long hallway… "Kill the mage! Kill the mage!"
Mage? That was a new one. But she was not wearing a priest's robes, shining white and Aldor blue, but heavy robes in an uncertain color, the shadow black and the sheen a deep violet blue that flowed… She yanked her eyes away and planted them back on the elf. His backup was still howling in pain, maybe if she got hit again, she'd just shut up…. Ranith spread her hands and started casting. No. She wouldn't, she only screamed louder… pity. She was starting to give Ranith a headache. It took another cast to get her to finally silence, and then Ranith turned her attention on the male with her, poor fool.
At his death, the casters attempting to hold the naaru prisoner broke and ran, clearing Ranith's path to the dais. She planted her hoof on it and dropped to her knee. So much was wrong, but this was right.
"Greetings." Her mind didn't want to work its way around words correctly. Something was wrong…
"The man'ari's touch is strong on you. His blood flows in you. You live and breathe because he has willed you to survive, at the cost of the one who hurt you."
The man'ari. Had been standing in the room that Velen had called her back to consciousness in. "I don't understand." She mourned. She had been touched by one of the corrupted, that she comprehended. Pulled back from the verge of death by the most blighted… the grinding death of the elven commander under his hoof, the contemptuous motion of his hand as he cast the circle. "Live, daughter of the Eredar. Carry his heart's blood with you, and live. So I command it." Didn't salvation from the corrupted mean that she was inherently corrupted?
"All is inherently corruptible, Ranith. But this was not a choice you made. It was a gift. What he has left you with is as much a gift as a theft. Live in the Light and see it as such. You are needed. Soon we leave here."
Leave here. Once again, her people had control of a vessel that made it possible to flee the world they were trapped on. And once again, they were set to flee.
"Is all well with it?" Alexei demanded, one step back from the dais.
"We're going again, aren't we?"
"Where?" they had fled so many times that half the worlds they'd passed through had been forgotten, but the name the naaru gave Ranith was the name of legends.
"Azeroth." She breathed, raising her eyes to the naaru floating above her. "We go to Azeroth." Their home world of Argus had fallen to the Legion. Untold interim homes. And now, Draenor. According to Ranith's Aldor masters, the only world to ever stand, not once, but twice, against the rage of the Legion… Azeroth.
He frowned, disturbed, and she looked at him. "Alexei, my… friend. What bothers you?" She asked, resting a hand on his shoulder. He sighed, shaking his head and resting his own chained hand on hers.
"Pride and foolishness, my friend. Pride and foolishness. I am afraid for you, for whatever happened, although the Prophet tells me you are well. And I am…" he grimaced. "Too proud to accept the idea of fleeing to Azeroth easily. What good will we do there? We will just be… refugees, and not particularly useful ones. They've stood against the Legion twice, and at our best, we could not do it once. And we are far from at our best…."
A true accounting of the losses her people had suffered had never been one of the subjects that her teachers cared to broach, but Ranith could count and the numbers were numbing… Ten thousand years ago they'd been a whole people, vast and numerous. Then the majority had turned against them, fallen to the Legion's wiles and become corrupted, man'ari… the first great loss of their numbers. They had been pressed, dogged at every turn for millennia, as Kil'jaeden and the Legion pursued. Then had come Draenor, this world, and a fleeting peace…hidden from the Legion. After that, there were accountings, and those froze Ranith's soul. They had lost eighty percent since the Legion had discovered Draenor, their people crushed, literally, under foot. The Path of Glory…paved with the bones of her ancestors, the road from the Illidari capital on Draenor, to Medivh's portal. In the face of such loss, such desperation, it was difficult to hold onto hope, onto the Light. And when the Light failed in their hearts, they ceased to be whole and true, degenerating into pathetic shadows of what they were meant to be. Alexei was such a beautiful example of what he was supposed to be, he should stand tall and true…
"Alexei." She breathed. She was supposed to be a priest, an advisor, and she had no words to fill this void.
"He doesn't want words." The naaru's voice in her heart. "You're right. He's beyond them. He wants you. He needs you. No priest, no advisor, only Ranith will do."
She wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her forehead against his chest plate. It would be difficult to span his width normally; now his armor and gear load made it an impossibility. She doubted if he even felt her touch, but he responded by lifting her from her feet and cradling her weight on his chest, his chained hand painfully tangled in her hair. "Little one." He sighed, "For you, I have no pride. Whatever it takes to keep you safe, whatever it takes to keep you whole." He paused, and she could feel him gathering his nerve to ask. "Ranith, little one. What happened? Something did. I feel it."
She relaxed in his grip, wrapping an arm around his neck. "The elven commander was at the turn in the hallway. He had a crossbow. I couldn't make it back to you and the column, and I had to go somewhere."
He nodded in agreement, moving off of the dais towards where the assault columns were gathering again. "So I went forward. I thought I might run into Velen's column if I kept heading for the bridge…. I didn't count on the man'ari."
He froze in half step, dropping his hoof down well before he had completed the stride. "Man'ari?" He coughed, managing to easily balance her weight and drop his hand to his sword hilt. "That's what crushed…?"
"Yes." And that noise was forever engraved in Ranith's mind. "I'd been shot. Poisoned, sitting under the man'ari. The elf wasn't content to let me die at my own speed…" He'd laughed, moving up behind Ranith, under the man'ari's empty gaze. His grasp on her shoulder, painful for such a small thing, pulling her tentacles where they rested in her hair. The bloom of pain, and the man'ari had shifted weight, the floor shuddering. His stance had been more than familiar, the stance of a male draenei contemplating violence, his chin lowering into the cup of his throat.
The elf had wrapped the length of Ranith's hair around his forearm, twisting her tentacles in it, and she caught the glimpse of cold silver as he bared her throat. The man'ari had spoken then, ponderously, and the elf half turned. He replied viciously, yanking Ranith backwards, the protrusion of the crossbow bolt striking his greaves, forcing it deeper into her back. Whatever the answer had been, it had obviously not pleased the man'ari… who galvanized his seventy foot frame into motion, clearing the forty feet between him and the elf in one step. The elf dropped Ranith and ran, trying to make the safety of the corridor, much too small for the man'ari to pass into.
"Halt." The man'ari ordered, using the language so close to Ranith's. The elf probably didn't speak it, but he didn't need to. He froze in place, and then meekly walked to the middle of the room and stood… apparently oblivious when the man'ari raised a foot over his head and dropped it.
"Daughter of the Eredar." He had stated, lifting Ranith from the floor with the slightest motion of his fingers. "Child of our blood." His gaze dropped to his feet and he shifted off of the bloody mess beneath him, flicking his hand to cast the circle, to contain the elf's blood. Another motion, and the elf's heart formed, whole, floating over the body. "Live, Daughter of the Eredar. Carry his heart's blood with you, and live. So I command."
She had been dimly aware of a warm, wet weight in her hand, full, when the man'ari had rested her over the corpse. A moment's coolness, then the heavier weight of robes clothed her. "Drink of our blood, child of our blood. Born in shadow you were, and let shadow clothe you." The smell of blood, not elven, but Draenei, eredar, and a sudden deep hunger, the edge of a cup under her lips, the taste of blood, and a sated exhaustion. "Sleep, Ranith, child of the Eredar. Your beloved and your Prophet come for you, and Velen's plans include little rest for those who trust him." Sleep had followed then, a sleep that Ranith had not enjoyed since she was a child unburdened.
"The man'ari intervened. Healed me, and left me there." He was long gone, that Ranith was certain of. He had left Tempest Keep before Velen had come into the room seeking her, and had gone very far away. He was on the very edge of her perception…
"Do not touch him, Ranith." Velen growled from immediately behind her, and Alexei jumped hard enough to lose his grip on her. If she'd not had her arm wrapped around his neck, she would have fallen. "If he stays away, so much the better. Do not open that door to him."
"Then I am corrupted…" Alexei grasped her again, his hold on the verge of painful… she could feel his tentacles sway back and forth as he shook his head in denial. "I cannot go on to Azeroth… I must stay here…"
"Spare us the self sacrificial stupidity, Ranith. I brought you here, both of you, to go to Azeroth. I called you for this. I have no intention of leaving you here to fall to the man'ari when we leave. You believe the elves would kill you if we left you here? Hardly. He will return for you, tell you we abandoned you, play on your fears, your desperation, and your loneliness. Get in your column, stand by your people and your beloved, and stand."
"Ouch." Alexei murmured when he carried on.
"Put me down." Ranith was again thankful she was too dark to blush. After that reaming, she'd be bright, bright purple if it were possible. "I can stand."
Alexei pulled backwards, bumping Ranith to the side. Small places terrified him. Being enclosed, imprisoned… dark, trapped. It was a fear he'd had since he was a small child, shuttled from one transient caregiver to the next.
"No." he hissed, locking his knees and hocks… working on granite immobility. It didn't matter that the female he wanted to impress more than anything looked on. Even her regard was not enough to break through this. "I can't. I won't. No." He'd face down every elf in Tempest Keep… even the man'ari… Anything to keep out of this coffin.
"Alexei." Ranith was worried, but her voice, her touch, was not nearly enough to calm him.
"No." He repeated. "I will not go. You must, Velen is correct. But I will not." He could feel her thinking, plotting, and he glared at her. "No. Go, be safe. Find another. But I will stay here."
She did not give him an answer, reaching around her neck and pulling a chain from under the neck of her robes. A single crystal drop hung from it, and she studied it. "My father was a jeweler by trade." She stated. "He made this for me when I was a child. If I cannot be with you, let it stay with you. Something to remember me by."
Some vestige of calm returned to his heart, and he nodded warily, dropping to a knee to allow her to rest it around his neck. Her smile was sad when she met his eyes, her fingers resting like moths' wings on the back of his neck. She leaned forward, and the last thing Alexei knew before darkness claimed him was the touch of her lips on his.
Shattrath was beautiful, a place of peace and calm, the joy of his people, and Alexei drank it in. It was better, brighter for the beauty who accompanied him, a woman of unmatched wonder. She walked beside him, laughing, his arm over her shoulder. He did not wear armor, for all was calm. He wore nothing other than a shirt and breeches, thin because it was summer, a thin silver chain and crystal drop visible in the v of his neckline. She wore a fine, pale blue gown that fluttered in the breeze, a thin golden chain and reddish pendant around her neck.
"You'll get wet." She teased when he waded into one of the pools which dotted the city's grounds.
"That's the point." He replied, watching her as she stood poised on the retaining wall that held the water. "It's hot. Live a little." He splashed at her, and she gave him a stare of regal distain. "Ranya."
She hopped from the wall into the hock deep water, darkening the edge of her gown. "Live a little, eh?" She demanded, dropping to her knees in the water to be able to push as large a wave as she could manage onto him, drenching more of herself in the process than she managed to wet him. He bellowed a laugh, picking her up out of the water. She was so damned beautiful, wet, her eyes dancing. She did not evade him when he pushed her under the small waterfall that fed the pond, her lips soft and her body softer…
"Alexei." It was her voice, but strident and concerned, and he rejected it. He didn't want strident, or concerned. He wanted the Ranith who laughed, teased, and promised him everything he wanted…
"Alexei, damn it! Wake up. You're drowning, you fool!"
What? The dream was gone, slipped through his fingers, and he was indeed drowning. This was not one of Shattrath's pools, but deep, cold, biting water that didn't want to release him. He fought to the surface and stared in disbelief. Water. A great amount of choppy water, as far as he could see. There was no such thing as this much water. Large white and gray birds wheeled and twisted in the air, filling it with their cries, that and the pounding of the water.
He turned a confused circle in the water, relieved to see that there was an end to this. Land… trees… ground. He swam to it, dragging his battered body onto the sand and collapsed. The last thing he coherently remembered was Ranith smiling at him, kissing him, not the joyous and teasing smiling and kisses of the dream, but a regretful touch. She'd given him a memento… his fingers found the necklace so that had been real, and then there had been…nothing. And now he was here, with these foreign birds and this unreal amount of angry water, alone.
"Ranya!" He finally summoned enough strength to yell for her, but the birds only mocked him back. His head thundered off tempo to the grinding noise of the water, and his hand was bloody when he pressed the leather palm of his hand to the spot which hurt the worst. So he was injured… He squinted into the overcast sky above him, getting his thoughts together enough to touch the blessed part of his soul. The naaru's mark gleamed just above his range of vision, and the pain retreated. "Where am I?" This looked like nothing he had ever seen before in his life. He had seen lakes before, but this stretched to the horizon, unbroken water. Why didn't it fall off the end?
He staggered to his feet, now thirsty and famished. What little food was left in his pack had been ruined by submersion… no great loss. He'd eaten most of it on the trip to Tempest Keep… Which was where he should be, but wasn't. He tried the water, and then spat it out as too salty to drink. That would dehydrate him further than he already was, like drinking blood.
There were spiders on the beach, scuttling sideways away from him, and he eyed them warily. They were tiny, but that didn't mean much. Poison was poison, and he rejected them as food. Beyond them were trees, completely foreign as well. He looked around, then sat and stared at the water, lost and abandoned. He'd been alone before, but this went deeper. Then, he'd always known why he was alone. Then, he'd always known where he was, and where he could find others. It was a cruel reality, the draenei, poised on the edge of extinction, were a naturally sociable and gregarious people and Alexei felt the loss deeply. "Ranith, my beloved?" He queried the very sky and water around him, and was not surprised when nothing answered.
Ranith wasn't certain what had gone wrong, but was certain that something had. Unlike Alexei, she'd been awake when she'd been placed in the Exodar's personnel transport pod. That self same pod was ruptured above her, with no sign of the Exodar or any of the people who were supposed to be with it. She was hungry, and vaguely aware that Alexei… behind her somewhere, was also hungry. He was confused, and in pain as well, but hunger… She eyed the ground twenty feet beneath her, a predatory smile crossing her face. The Light provided… Elves never went anywhere without food. This one thought he was being sneaky, but he was failing miserably. She was unaware she had her left hand wrapped around the heart pendant as she tracked the scout's wary progress, unaware that her dark coloring and the shadowed robes had caused her to vanish into the tree's motley camouflage.
She hit him hard, where there was one, there were others… close, but she had no intention of giving him time to call for help. He died quickly, and Ranith vanished into the undergrowth with his pack, headed towards Alexei.
He was sitting on the shore of an immense lake, watching the water advance and recede. She looked at the vista for a moment, judged it truly disturbing, and moved up beside him. "Ranya, beloved." He greeted softly, and she dropped the pack in the space between them. He glanced at it, and then went back to staring at the water. "They put me in anyway."
"Yes." She looked back at the press of trees. They moved there, and Alexei sat in the open… "Alexei…" he had been comfortable enough to speak the endearment that others saw fit to give. "Beloved. This place is too exposed."
"What, will the spiders get me?" He gestured at the oddest spider she'd ever seen, some sort of water spider moving in and out of the waves, much smaller and low to the ground than the spiders surrounding Shattrath.
"Possibly." She allowed. All spiders were bad, even when they were small enough for him to crush under a hoof. "I was more worried about Kael's scouts."
He looked at the pack again, then chuckled. "Maybe they should be worried about you." He said, pulling the pack to his lap and going through it. "What went wrong?" he asked around a mouthful of bread, passing her another loaf.
"We must not have cleared the Exodar as well as we thought. Or they ported back on. Either way, there are a lot of elves… I'm fairly certain we crashed."
"So this may not even be Azeroth?"
That was a fair question, and one she had no answer to. She took the bread from him and sat down. "That's possible."
"So we may be lost." He lay back on the sand. "And if we crashed, how many died?"
Such happy questions. It hurt to see him doubt, that was her job. She rested her head against his stomach, curling into the same position she had slept in during the nights in Zangarmarsh, and he sighed, placing his open hand against her temple. "When does it end, Ranith?"
"I don't know. But I know it doesn't end now. And it doesn't end here."
"I dreamed we were in Shattrath."
She traced the scrollwork on his chest plate with a finger. Shattrath was a subject she didn't want to broach; it was still too new and painful. "You were so beautiful. You laughed like I've never heard, so happy…" He continued, immune to her mood.
"I assure you I will not be happy if the elves find us mooning on this beach like children."
He sighed gustily and pushed himself to his feet, rolling her off as he did so. "As I swore before the naaru, whatever it takes to keep you safe and whole." He began walking resolutely, and she fell into step, one stride behind him, just outside of his sword reach. She did it without thought, absently playing with the necklace.
"Let me see that." He demanded after a long moment of walking and she gazed at him. "The necklace. The man'ari gave it to you."
"Yes." She stopped. The man'ari had given more than that. She knew without wondering. And Velen had not bothered to confiscate any of it back. The naaru had not told her to get rid of any of it, either. "I gave you the necklace I wore before." Because he was supposed to have it. "The naaru said I could take what I was given as a gift…"
And the naaru's judgment could not be argued with. Alexei frowned, cupping the pendant in his hand and studying it. "A rather macabre gift." He noted slowly, letting it fall back to the end of its chain. "But should I expect anything else?" It was a rhetorical question because he spun and kept moving without waiting for an answer or comment. She shrugged, looking at the pendant for the first time. It was a heart, about the size of a rabbit's, the size of the main joint of Ranith's thumb. The chain passed through the arch of main vessels sprouting from the top, there was nothing stylized about it. It was dark purplish red, mottled with lighter tissue at the top, and marked with veins. Hard to the touch, almost metallic except for a residual warmth, and there was a vague sloshing sound when she shook it. Carry his heart's blood with you…
Alexei began to sing after awhile, when the silence grew to be too much. She was not familiar with the song, and after the verse went into chorus she understood why. No one who valued their structural integrity would have dared sing this in front of Raynor's daughter. It was bawdy and profane; some sort of drinking song about a house of ill repute, and Ranith didn't think Alexei was truly paying attention to what he sang.
He had a nice voice, though, and she studied him. He would clean up well, if there was ever an opportunity for it… she liked the long, thick blackness of his hair, and the perfect spring sky blue of his skin. Good features, well chiseled, strong of body and firm of heart. Well, at least the Prophet made a fine matchmaker…
He stopped abruptly, and she tore her gaze from admiring him to surveying what had his attention. She was no technician, but she didn't need to be. Draenei architecture was unmistakable; Tempest Keep resembled nothing so much as a floating Shattrath. And that was a very large chunk of draenei crafting; resting breached and shattered in the shallow waters before them. She couldn't say what part of the Exodar it was, but she could confidently say that was where it had originated from.
He walked up to it, and Ranith watched him, waiting for the trap to spring. There was apparently none, though… he walked back without incident. "Nothing." He shrugged. "It feels… wrong, but there's nothing there."
Ranith frowned. The Exodar was not the first crash they'd ever experienced, and the Aldor records were fairly straightforward about the last crash to occur. "They're powered by compressed magical energy, collected in the power crystals." She stated, and he glanced at her. They'd had precious little use for technicians once they'd lost control of Tempest Keep, and neither her calling or Alexei's really led to much comprehension of the workings that had brought them this far. "Exodar was fully powered. When Oshu'gun crashed on Draenor, it created the Oshu'gun Plain out of what had been hills and unleashed a magical backlash that still hasn't completely subsided. We may have done it again, here. We may just end up hoping this is not Azeroth…"
"Hello! We're new here and we need your help, oh, great bulwarks against the Legion… by the way, we've created a disaster… sorry."
"Pretty much sums it up."
"My grandmother told me once that things got worse before they got better. I see the worse, where's the better?"
"Er. Well, it's getting dark, and it's getting cold." The breeze off of all that water had been refreshing in the afternoon. Now, it was heading towards unpleasantly chilly. "We need to find someplace to hole up."
"Everything I own is wet. I came down in the water."
She studied him thoughtfully. When he stopped moving, he'd chill quickly, and if he was damp… "All the more reason to stop. That means we've only got one dry bedroll. I don't mind sharing but I'd like to share them both. We need to find someplace we can get a fire going."
"Right." He stared into the dark press of trees just off of the beach, before he stepped into them. There was a bluff of rocks, and he followed it until he found a sheltered spot. "I think here is as good as we're going to get." He finally admitted the obvious. It had gotten dark very quickly, and they had run out of light to find better, if there was such a thing.
"It works." She soothed, gathering deadfall and piling it up as he set a fire. He was correct, everything he had was drenched, and she spread out his bed roll while he fought his way out of the swelling leather of his harness
"Ewh. I reek." He noted with a self deprecating grin, stripping out the quilted padding and finally his undershirt and sitting next to the fire in his breeches. "You sure you want to share camp with me?"
"My choices are many and varied." She chuckled, "Stinking male vindicator or alone with Kael's scouts…. Hmmm… decisions, decisions…" she spread out her own, dry, bedroll and stretched out on it. It still smelled of the mountains, of their trip here, and she sighed.
"What?" He demanded.
"I was just wondering when a bed and a roof over my head had become a luxury instead of the everyday… I'm so spoiled, I know." She patted the roll behind her and he sat there, warily. The lowering chill in the air was now undeniable… and even he could see the inevitable.
"Ranya. It was never a crime that your parents loved you, and took good care of you as long as they could. Anyone who calls you spoiled is merely envious." He checked his own roll, and spread its newly dry warmth over her. It was salt stiff, and smelled of him, but was blessedly warm. It was even more blessedly warm when he finally lay down next to her and pulled her in close. "Sleep, little one." He murmured, planting a kiss on the back of her head. "We fight again tomorrow."
Ranith rested on her belly, staring. "What are they?" She demanded, and Alexei
"I have no idea." He stated, staring with equal concern. He couldn't put a name to them, but his innate ability to judge friend or foe definitely labeled them the latter. They swam, but were not naga, or fish. They walked, and carried weapons, but seemed more froglike than anything else he would call them. "Hostile frog fish… things." And if he couldn't identify them, then he had no idea how to fight them. "But that…that must be…"
"Exodar." She agreed, her eyes on the promontory beyond, dominated by arches and power crystals. "Or what's left of it. It should be much, much larger. So we go around these…whatever they are."
"Sounds like a plan." He agreed. He could figure out what these were, and how to kill them, later.
"Oh, thank the naaru!" Ranith breathed, and he blinked, catching glimpse of what had her so thankful… a group of draenei, eight of them, moving down the beach with a purpose. Survivors. Someone else besides him, her, and the mass of elves. She bounced to her feet and waved jubilantly at them, and one detached to head in their direction, a young female.
"Good morning." She greeted the pair of them, eying them. "You have lived, good… walking in now?"
"We came down a couple of miles north." Ranith answered her. "It got dark before we made it this far."
She grinned. "Then go, on to the Exodar! Clean up, eat, have any injuries tended. We are going seeking other survivors… you said you fell north of here?" She looked in that direction. "We shall look there, then. If there are two well enough to walk out, then perhaps there are more."
There were others, many others, when they approached, and Alexei felt his dread lift. They were not alone. As they approached, it became evident that the ship was more intact than it first seemed, the force of impact had buried much of it. The corridor in was clear, but the air was heavy with dust and the smell of burning. The naaru was in its correct place, presiding over an aura of controlled purpose.
A harried looking young priest, in robes that had once been bright, shining, blue and white, but were now decidedly dust colored, moved over when he saw them. "Greetings! Greetings! You are well enough to walk on your own, do you require healing?"
"No." Alexei replied. All of his people could manage some level of healing, but if badly injured, or exhausted, that became more difficult. His healing was on par with Ranith's, which made each of them able to heal themselves out of pretty much anything. "We're good."
"Wonderful to hear. We need every able bodied survivor we can get our hands on." He finally seemed to notice them, instead of the clipboard he was staring at. "Ah, my apologies, vindicator. Of course you and your companion are well. I did not mean to doubt your abilities. Your name, please?"
"Alexei. And Ranith." He might as well, that was always how it just seemed to come out. Ranith only looked amused at the introduction, and waved when the priest's eyes fell on her.
"Hello." She grinned. "You need to put us to work?"
"No, my sister." He tucked the clipboard under his armpit. "I did not recognize you dressed as you are. The Prophet says you and your companion are to be fed, bathed, supplied, repaired, and sent up to him when you've had some rest. He's been expecting your arrival."
"Why am I not surprised?" She murmured under her breath, and Alexei shrugged.
"He is the Prophet after all." He noted. A bath…would be good. His dunking yesterday had only served to make things worse, coating him with an itchy powdering of dry salt, stiffening his hair to spiky tendrils. And his armor was a disgrace. Ranith, however, still looked like she'd just stepped from her front door in Shattrath. "Where will you be when I am done?" Velen would want to see them together, as always.
She flicked her fingers towards the naaru. "With it." He nodded, leaving her as he went in search of the barracks. There was a bath and new clothes waiting for him, finer clothes than he'd ever owned in his life, and he was a different man when he stepped into the armory, carrying his armor. This he understood, chaos, jostling and cursing as hundreds of the battle sore fought for a place in line to get a repair and return to ready status.
"Name, unit?" The demand lacked the sweet concern of the priest on the main floor, and Alexei grinned at the speaker.
"Alexei… with Laretos' strike team for the assault…" He ruefully prodded the bundle at his feet. "It's seen hard use and not much maintenance lately…"
"Alexei?" The name brought him a cold, measuring stare, then a shrug as the male grabbed the bundle and tossed it across the room into a pile without a second look. "Dump for salvage. The Prophet says you are to have new. We don't have many sets to spare, so it's your lucky day."
Somehow, Alexei doubted that.
It took Ranith a handful of heartbeats to realize the brilliant young vindicator approaching her was Alexei. He was clean, his waist length black hair tightly braided and falling down his back. He had departed in vindicator's chain, well worn to the point of battery, and returned in full vindicator plate, a midnight blue cloak chained over his shoulders.
"Ranya." He greeted, grasping the terrace railings, and staring at the naaru beyond.
"Alexei… you look…" Good was not good enough, but she wasn't willing to commit to the adjectives that did describe this. They all sounded lovesick, adolescent, and she was neither.
"Let's go see what Velen wants." He sighed, pushing back from the railings.
They found him on one of the outside terraces, watching the water come and go. "Good day, my children." He greeted without turning. "It is beautiful, is it not?"
Alexei glanced in her direction, but said nothing. As usual, the stupid answer rose unbidden and she said, "No." without real thought. Velen frowned, puzzled.
"You are not the first to think that, but the others have lied to me when I asked the question. Why is it not beautiful to my children?"
She looked out over the water, trying to quantify it. "It's like the End, only instead of nothing, it's water. That much water should not exist. It should have fallen off a long time ago."
Velen laughed, shaking his head. "That is an ocean, Ranith. Azeroth has no End. It is whole. Argus had oceans much like this one. Draenor did, before it was sundered. You were born on, have grown up on, an aberration. This is what it is supposed to be. But thank you for your truthful answer, I understand now. So, Alexei, what has you bothered?"
"Why do I rate such treatment? Others wait in line, but there is line for me. Others repair their armor, I get new."
Velen only nodded, his eyes never leaving the horizon. "I don't have time for lines and repairs, Alexei. We don't. This is not favoritism, it is need. I need you and Ranith ready to go, and looking the part, now. The man'ari saw to Ranith, we must see to you. We came here with the young, and the strong, those capable of surviving the trip to Tempest Keep, capable of going straight into battle with the will to win it after that trip. Most of our exarchs, diplomats, and emissaries… were not capable of it. We are here, on Azeroth, with a leadership vacuum. I have watched you, watched Ranith, knowing this day would come. I knew the day her father pressed her into my arms and begged me to name her that this day would come." He turned, "Alexei. Rania'ath. You stand before me. It's very simple, Alexei. I am not going to spout prophecy at you. Or destiny. You are a leader, a general, and you receive reports of a massive explosion off of your shoreline, one heard for miles. There is a great wave of water, and a vast magical release. What do you do?"
Alexei settled into the toe pointed hip shot Ranith recognized as his thinking stance. "I evacuate those closest to the disturbance and reconnoiter in force." He answered swiftly and firmly.
"The answer of a fine military mind." Velen sighed. "So, we can expect that response to our arrival."
Ranith sighed. "We cannot…" she began, and his eyes rose to her face.
"We cannot what, Rania'ath?" The Prophet demanded, his voice lowering. "Say it."
"Allow that!" She hissed back, and he nodded, returning his gaze to the endless waves.
"We cannot allow that. They will be jumpy and ready for conflict. Our people are tired, on the edge. We are always ready for conflict. We are eredar, and the man'ari have wreaked havoc here for generations… that is what we will be mistaken for. If they come, and find us, we will have an untold tragedy. And I will give the order to defend Exodar. We must go to them before they come to us. Rania'ath, the Legion walks the Path of Glory. We are running out of time. I need my best to head this off, bring the word, and keep them away from Exodar until they understand we are not man'ari." He turned towards Alexei. "That is why there is no line for you, Alexei. That is why you must be a shining example of our people, because you will be an example of them. I do you no favors. A boat docks at the foot of this hill, you and Ranith will be on the next one."
"You named her?" Alexei asked, when the silence grew long
"Ranith. You just said…. Rania'ath… Song of my heart…"
Velen chuckled, shaking his head. "Oh, no, boy. I am not so arrogant to name another's child, especially what would be their only one. Her father named her. He asked me to, and I asked him what it felt like to finally have a child born. He said she was a song in his heart, and I told him her name was Ranith. He named her. I just realized he had. His song, your song. Rather ironic, considering she can't sing… now, go, children. Go with the Light, and just remember… not all elves are Kael's."
There were two other pairs on the pier when they arrived, all bundled deeply in cloaks. "Cloak?" One of them demanded, his eyes on Ranith. "We won't survive long if we're taken for eredar on the dock…" She nodded, pulling hers out of her father's pack before it registered that she did not own one. It was heavy across her shoulders when she swept it on, and the mage who'd spoken only raised a brow. "Subtle. Very. Quite…"
"Gaudy." Alexei stated the word that hung unspoken from the mage. "And hairy. You won't be mistaken for an eredar, but some other awful monster. What did that start out life as?"
"Three warp beasts, and thirteen of Kael's casters. Pity. I suppose he's correct, it is rather… unsubtle. There."
The mage took a half step back, and Alexei only shook his head. "Much better, Ranya." He sighed, obviously willing himself to ignore the obvious. "And there's the boat."
The boat was empty, her hooves echoing emptily on the planks when she boarded. The group was oddly silent for six strange draenei, no introductions, no attempts at conversation… just three bound pairs, and the water.
"The six of you are going to sound like a herd of elekk if you don't muffle those hooves on these piers." The man'ari's voice in her head, still drolly amused, as if this whole thing was being played out for his benefit. "None of the alliance races have hooves… and no other race but the eredar have tails like your beloved friend Alexei boasts, so thick and masculine...."
She sat with an exasperated sigh, opening her bag. Alexei's tail was a lost cause; hopefully he could keep it under his cloak, but the hooves… Hopefully she had something that would work in a pinch. "Haven't I taken care of everything?"
Yes, he had, there were two pairs of woolly hoof….slippers. She slid on the smaller ones, standing and stamping a hoof. Much better. "Why?" Why? Why did he? Why didn't Velen take the items away? Why didn't the naaru advise against their use?
"You are eredar."
"I am draenei." The mage studied her for a long moment, then began looking through his own pack.
"And I am man'ari. But we are both eredar. I will not permit the elves to destroy eredar, even confused and misled ones. You pay for the gullibility of your ancestors millennia dead. Let Kil'jaeden scream that you are traitors… you cannot be a traitor in an action that occurred ten millennia before your birth. Velen, yes. You, no. The elves mock us by committing genocide against our blood. Kil'jaeden pushes the Legion against our blood in the exercise of a personal vendetta. It is all very pathetic. I will not play this game… Hear me, little one. Velen is correct about one thing."
"What is that?" She passed Alexei his slippers, and he stared at them as if they were some deranged and dead animal.
"We walk the Path of Glory. The Ramparts are at my back, the Portal is before me, and beyond it, Azeroth. Warn them if you choose, none of it matters. They will be a disappointment to you, to Velen. I am coming."
"Are you alright, Ranya?" Alexei demanded, resting his arms across her shoulders, over the scalped locks of thirteen of Kael's casters, braided into the ornate trim of her white leather cloak. "You seem…distracted."
"I'm fine." She lied, and he was trusting enough to accept her words.
Another pier materialized out of the water, and she could feel Alexei's anxiety mount. Who knew what waited for them? "Two other piers with two other boats, and a town." He growled, and the mage nodded.
"And three pairs of us." How…convenient. He didn't have to say it. "We go left. They go straight. And you two go right."
"Works." Alexei agreed, his hand heavy on her lower back. "Go, Ranya, I'm right behind you."
She hopped over the slice of murky water, landing gracefully on the pier. Right… was a low lying boat with Aldor blue sails…a good omen. She broke into a trot the moment she heard Alexei's weight strike the planks behind her, not too fast… that would look like a hostile charge, but more of a purposeful, hurried getting places trot. Her steps stuttered when she reached the crux of the three piers…an elf stood there. She felt Alexei fading back, felt him sizing up the foe, felt his hand drop to his hilt.
"Morning." The elf greeted, curiously, as her fingers wrapped around the heart pendant.
Not Kael's. And he spoke in the same language as the human outposts.
"Morning." She answered in the same, "Pardon us." Keep going, Alexei. Don't…
He didn't stop, staying with her, flowing past the elf and onward to the boat.
Nothing amiss in Darkshore. Nothing amiss in Teldrassil. Nothing amiss… except for the floating corpses of wavethreshers and the stories of fishermen. Whatever it was, it rested out there… and there was a most inconvenient place to get a fleet to. The closest fleet was at Theramore, the other side of the continent. But something had happened; the explosion had been heard in Auberdine, in Darnassus. All reports he had agreed, something had exploded off the northwestern coast of the continent.
"Telaar's boat." The harbormaster stated, and he looked at the end of Auberdine's pier. This boat's berth, Azuremyst, was the closest to the disturbance, and now the boat reappeared after being missing for three days… appeared with passengers. Six of them, all heavily cloaked. The boat had not come to complete stop before the first of them jumped across and headed in his direction. He watched it… that was not human. Elven. Gnomish, or dwarven. Something about the way it ran touched a memory, or two, but he could not place it.
"Morning." The harbormaster greeted, and it paused, but Roth's attention was on the much larger one trailing. He's got his hand on a weapon…
"Morning. Pardon us." She, because it was definitely a female voice, had a painfully thick accent he couldn't place. She turned towards Roth, and the boat to Menethil behind him, passing him without a nod or acknowledgement. Two of her companions headed forwards, towards Auberdine, and the other two split towards the boat to Darnassus.
Roth considered… and then continued down the pier after the first pair. He had reports to deliver, and Menethil was his first stop. Also, these two were leaving Kalimdor, heading for the continent that housed both of the Alliance's main capitals. They needed to be watched.
"Good morning." He greeted brightly, although it was obvious they'd both rather be ignored.
"Morning." The woman greeted again, sparing her companion the need to speak. She was absurdly tall; he realized when he stepped onto the deck beside her. And she was small compared to her very silent companion, who loomed ominously over Roth.
"I'm Rothgar Pollard." He bullied on, extending his hand. "And you, my lady?"
"Ranith." She stated grudgingly, and finally gave her own hand when it became obvious he wasn't going to be graceful and accept her refusal. She wore gloves, he was not surprised. They were both trying hard to hide, but she had the normal number of fingers. Her name was unusual, and she gave no surname. "And Alexei." She again, saved her companion the need to answer when Roth made it to him. The mountain inclined his head, and remained stubbornly silent.
"So, you travel to Menethil. You have business there, or beyond?" Yes, just where did they think they were going? Menethil, obviously. Stormwind? Ironforge?
"We travel to the Cathedral of Light." She answered after a pause, and he could still not place her accent. That put them bound for Stormwind, the human capital… "We bear a message for them." The boat pulled away and she moved to the railing to watch Auberdine vanish.
"Oh?" That begged so many more questions. What message? From who? "I am from Stormwind." He stated, hoping to elicit more information. She was very cautious, very closemouthed, and her companion completely silent.
"Stormwind?" She inquired, and he narrowed his eyes.
"Yes, my lady. The city you profess to travel to. Stormwind, where the Cathedral of Light is… May I ask where you and your very quiet companion hail from?"
"I hail from Shattrath, paladin." She wrapped fingers around the rails and stared over the water. "Alexei, from close to it."
"Never heard of it, and I'm well traveled. Just as I've never heard your accent. Nor can I place just what you are. And you tell me now you travel to the Cathedral with a message. I'll hear it now." She had seen through him, easily enough. He sensed she was telling him the truth, although nothing she said made any sense. "I am a paladin of the Light, as you said. The Cathedral is my home, and I head there now. I can take your message as easily as my own." The male whatever it was braced in a combat stance, and Rothgar's stomach clenched when sunlight struck armor… a hell of a lot of armor, under his voluminous cloak.
"Alexei. That will not be necessary. Our job is to get this word out. Attacking those who ask is defeating our purpose."
"I do not like sneaking." The male snarled back, if possible, his accent thicker than hers, his voice booming deep. "I do not like hiding. And I do not like this one threatening you."
She tilted her head to watch him, and he retreated into silence again. "You speak for the Cathedral." She mused, and Rothgar stared at her, wishing after that scene that he wore his gear. His orders had been to look normal. Gather information, information that might not have been forthcoming to the authorities… wearing his armor had not been wise. "I bear two messages for the Cathedral, then. One…" She held up a finger. "From Velen, the leader of our people."
Another unfamiliar name. He frowned at it, and the context she used it in. "We request the assistance of the Church."
"What sort of assistance?" He asked warily. "And why, where?"
"We need supplies. Food, equipment, maps. We have crashed on a chain of islands known as Azuremyst. We have casualties and injured, and we did not have the opportunity to supply before we came to you."
"Refugees?" It was not the first time they'd had an appeal for aid from one refugee group or another. The mountain bristled angrily; obviously his pride was unbowed in spite of whatever circumstance had caused this.
"Yes." The woman was less annoyed by the term, more amused. "Call us refugees if you wish. We came in a hurry, we crashed…" she shrugged, "And we were poorly supplied. Refugees…certainly."
"And your second message to the Cathedral?" He asked, his concern somewhat calmed.
She sighed. "Tell them… Tell them that the Legion walks the Path of Glory. Tell them that the Portal will be opened soon before the Legion, and that they will come onto Azeroth. Tell them that the exiles have come unto Azeroth, and that we stand ready to face the Legion again, beside the Alliance. Tell them that Velen's people are here, and that we stand in the naaru's blessing and the true path of the Light. Tell them now, paladin. You can return home without waiting for this boat. Return to meet us in Menethil when we arrive…with their answer."
"You have information, Rothgar? About this explosion? You've returned quickly." The high priestess eyed him, and he bowed before her and the assembled leadership of the church. "Yes, my lady. I have…information, and two messages. I will start with my information, which I am certain of. Teldrassil and Darkshore appear to be fine. There are some dead sea animals washing ashore, which seem to have been burned to death, but we have no casualties from these areas. The explosion was centered over a string of islands off the northwestern coast, called Azuremyst. Very lightly populated, some fishermen, but no settlements. We haven't managed to get out there yet, none of the passenger vessels are interested in going, and the fishing fleet is avoiding the area."
"It is a blessing that such an event chose such a remote area to happen in." Laurena smiled, but it did not quite make it all the way to her eyes. Something had happened in an area so remote that they could not get to it quickly. Something utterly devastating and it was beyond their reach so far. And it happened in darkness…
"Yes, my lady. Perhaps we should request assistance from Lady Proudmoore?" The Theramore Fleet would be the safest bet to send.
"You said you have messages? From?"
"I am not certain. She was…rather enigmatic. She gave her name as Ranith, but gave me little to go on. Said she hailed from somewhere called Shattrath, which I've never heard of. Said she had a message from her people's leader…"
"And what people is that?"
He grimaced, shaking his head. "She deliberately did not say. She gave the leader a name, Velen, but that was it. She claims they are a refugee group, and they have crashed on the islands we're looking at. She says they have injured, and are poorly equipped."
Grumbles, some laughter from the others, but the high priestess's gaze did not falter. "Her second message was…" he shrugged, under the gaze. "Seer babble. It meant little to me, but perhaps you know more… She said that the Legion walks the Path of Glory. I can only assume she refers to the Burning Legion. I do not know any such Path of Glory." He waited, but Laurena only shook her head to show she did not know it, either.
"It is a disturbing statement. It could be the words of a zealot, the path of glory sounds like a way of conquest." She finally murmured. "There was more?"
"She said that the Portal will open before them, soon, and beyond it is Azeroth."
"Many claim the Portal is on the verge of opening. They've been saying that since it was closed. Still the words of a zealot."
"True. Then she said that the exiles have come to Azeroth, to stand beside the Alliance against the Legion. Velen's people, and that they stand in the naaru's blessing and the true path of the Light."
"Where is this…Ranith…now?" A different voice preceded the arrival of the Archbishop, and Roth bowed before him.
"Due in Menethil soon. We have time to intercept her at the docks if we wish, and determine just what they are. They are not human, or any of our allies…"
"Horde?" Laurena demanded, and he shrugged.
"She was tall enough to be trollish, I suppose." He admitted, gesturing his hand over his head at her approximate height. "But she is not a troll. She moved wrong to be that. Rather thin hands, very tall. Her companion, very big. Almost tauren bull sized, but likewise, he didn't move like it. No, neither of them were a race I'm familiar with. We should not let them disembark in Menethil…"
"Menethil, I assume." Alexei stated slowly, watching the docks near, and Ranith nodded. Menethil came with a welcoming party… a line of paladins and priests on the dock, all intently watching the boat… Rothgar standing at the plank when the ship slowed to a stop.
"And I assume you expect me to stand down, little one?"
He only nodded, moving to stand behind her. "Good afternoon, Rothgar." She greeted when the paladin, now in armor, stepped onto the deck of the boat. "We are right where you left us."
"So you are." He acknowledged, striding towards her. "I gave your messages to the Church…"
"And they reply by sending this."
"My orders are to bring you and your companion, unharmed, to the Cathedral to answer questions there. As you said earlier, that was where you meant to travel. This…" he motioned at a portal opening behind him, "Will merely mean you get there so much faster."
"True." She agreed. "And speed is what the Prophet requires of us."
"He is assured in his own mind that you are nothing but a fool of a zealot. They are all assured of that. Go through the portal before he decides to indulge his curiosity and see what you really look like. Once that happens, it will be so much more difficult to get you into the Cathedral."
She stepped through, into the vestibule of the Cathedral, Alexei stubbornly on her heels. The main chapel was lit, not by the glory of a naaru, but by sky lights, and there were several humans there. The way to them was marked by a patterned floor in white and Aldor blue, and she walked it.
"So." A woman, standing behind the altar at the head of the room stated. "You are the one called Ranith?"
"I am Ranith."
"We received your messages. We had some questions."
"So ask them." The first warding circle was imbedded in the way before her, but Ranith ignored it as she passed over it. She doubted if Alexei even realized it was there.
"You state that the Legion walks the Path of Glory. That sounds rather ominous and yet rather interesting in a completely ambiguous way. What exactly is the Path of Glory? A state of being?"
"The Path of Glory is the road between Medivh's portal and the Illidari stronghold of Hellfire. It is a place, the geographical location of the Legion's forces." The woman's pleasant, yet dubious, façade faltered. That was obviously not the answer she'd expected. "It means that the Legion has left its last outpost before the Portal behind. It means they're on the move. It means they're coming here." Ranith continued. Few had ever accused Raynor's daughter of ambiguity.
"Where is this Shattrath you claim to be from?" A new question, a new tack, an attempt to unbalance Ranith.
"Shattrath is…" How to answer that when every point of reference she had was another question waiting to be sprung? "In Terokhar." She answered when the woman raised a questioning brow… "My people's capital."
"Ah, yes. Your people. Do your people have a name?"
"Eredar!!!" The man'ari laughed in her head, "I dare you! I dare you! Answer her truthfully! Make the smug bitch eat her words!"
"Of course we have a name."
"And it would be?"
"And the Light does not lie. Face the truth, as hard as it is. Look at yourself. Look at her. You have brought her a plea, and a fair warning, and she mocks both. This is the priesthood of the Alliance."
"We are the exiled of the Eredar."
The room froze; the only noise Ranith was certain of was the deflating hiss as Alexei expelled the contents of his lungs.
"Ranya." He stated into the death silence. "Sometimes, my beloved, you are an utter fool."
"Eredar?" The woman demanded, coming around the altar and moving down the steps towards Ranith. "You come into this holy place and claim to be Eredar? You ask our help, and then insult us?"
"I told you they would disappoint you. You waste your time, and your breath. Holy place. What a laugh. Where is the naaru to bring the Light into it?"
"The naaru exist because of the Light. They serve the Light. They are not the Light itself."
"To lie to you would be the insult, after asking your help. We are the Draenei, exiled of the Eredar. We have come to warn you that the Legion is moving, that they are ready to open the Portal and try for Azeroth again. We have come to stand beside you."
"How do you have this information?" A calm, reasonable male voice, and Ranith turned on the speaker. "This information about what is beyond the Portal? This Path? These places you speak of?"
It was a small man even for a human, chest high on Ranith. He looked up, curiously, peering into the persistent shadows that formed under the cloak. "Do you mind?" He asked, "If we see you and your companion?"
She pushed the cloak over her shoulders, and the woman stepped backwards. Alexei dropped his on the floor behind him, and the guards moved closer. "Certainly look rather like Eredar to me." He noted slowly, peering first at Ranith, and then at Alexei. "Where do you come by this information?"
"All of my people know of the Path of Glory. We pave it."
"So you serve the Legion?" The woman demanded again, and Ranith raised a brow. "No. We pave it. My grandfather's bones lie there. The Legion has used our defenders as building materials."
The smaller man looked contemplative, pulling at his lower lip. "She does not lie. She is one of the Light, quite strongly, as is her companion. It is obvious there is much here we do not understand, and we should hear her out. From the beginning. You have intelligence from beyond the Portal, from Draenor. Therefore, can I assume that this Shattrath is in Draenor? That you are from there?"
"Yes, Shattrath is in Draenor. We have fled Draenor to come here. Shattrath was besieged, doomed to fall. We had no other option, we must carry on, and so we have come to you. Yes, we are refugees. Yes, we have crashed, and we need help. Your help. But we are not defenseless; we have a great many combat able troops who have been raised to face the Legion. We have paladins, we have priests. We have the naaru. We are not…"
"Not what, Ranith?" The man inquired pleasantly, and she stared at him.
"Worthless." She sighed. "We are not worthless. We have failed to hold the Legion back, but we have tried. We have tried so many times! We cannot hold Draenor against them, we are so few now. But we have brought you all we have, and we will stand again. We will stand until he stops, or we die."
"He?" The man reached in the depths of his robes and produced an apple. He rubbed it on his sleeve, and then offered it to her.
"Kil'jaeden. He has hounded us for ten thousand years. He does not stop, and the only thing that will please him is the day we no longer exist." She shook her head, and he replaced the apple from wherever it had come from. "We're here to help. The crash was unfortunate… We believed we had cleared the vessel before we left, but somehow we were wrong."
"So you have what you consider to be combat ready troops, and you have evacuated them to here… to stand on Azeroth instead of your own home world."
"Our home world fell to the Legion ten thousand years ago. Draenor is not our home world, merely where we were last. Azeroth has stood against the Legion before. We would be proud to help you defend against them again."
He raised steady brown eyes to her face, a furrow deepening the skin over them. "Send a warning to Nethergarde in the Blasted Lands. Inform them we have cause to believe the Portal may open soon. And let the Cenarion know as well."
"We're going to listen to her?" The woman demanded, and Ranith felt fear under her. If she stopped fighting, if she admitted any of this, then she had to face it all as a possibility.
"I have a priest and a paladin before me, warning me and asking for help so that they can help us. I don't care if they've got horns, hooves and tails. I don't care if they're blue. All I care is that they both serve the same Light I do, and they do. Everything tells me she tells me the truth. And if I have to believe that, then I must act on her information. Send the warning, and get ready to send the aid that this Velen has requested. Of course, we will be allowed emissaries to your people? To see for ourselves?"
"Of course. We would be happy to welcome you to the Exodar. Our fear was that an investigation of the crash would bring word of a large number of eredar down in the middle of a disaster area, killing elves."
"Elves? You have neglected to inform us of this… and there should be very few to none in that area, anyway."
"We brought them with us…" Ranith shrugged. "They are what we failed to clear, and what brought the Exodar down. Kael'thas' people….the blood elves. They are what we've been fighting while the Legion prepared to move from Hellfire. They are the ones who besieged Shattrath."
"Kael's people are traitors." Another voice, this from a large man who had remained silent through most of Ranith's ordeal. "If you have troubles with them, then you have the same troubles as most." He walked into the light, his eyes on Alexei who stood motionless behind Ranith. "Well, I will have to admit, as odd as it is…that is most certainly a paladin of the Light. And is therefore my brother in arms." He clapped Alexei on the shoulder, the sound a discordant gnash of mail hitting plate. "If they need help, Benedictus, then we give it to them. And yes, we spread their warning and the word of their people's arrival… If the Portal truly is opening, then will you stand there?"
"Of course." Alexei finally spoke. "Show us where it is, and we will stand there."
The man laughed, attempting, with great futility, to shake Alexei by the hold he had on him. Alexei broadened his stance, stubbornly refusing to shift, and Ranith shook her head. Were all males exactly the same? "You can't move him." She finally noted. "He's a fully grown draenei male. Few things can move one, according to my mother."
"Obviously… How do you get a horse big enough for him?"
"Horse?" Ranith considered the question. She'd heard the word before… somewhere…
"No horses in Draenor… We ride animals called horses, to get places faster."
"Oh." That's where she'd heard the word before. She glanced at Alexei, who only gave her the slightest shake of his head. The ghost animals ridden by the dead in Hellfire… horses.
"You don't ride?"
"We ride elekk. The orcs ride wolves… so yes, we understand what you're asking."
"So there are orcs in Draenor. Of course, that's where they're supposed to be from." He still had not released Alexei, who was beginning to look like he did not appreciate the hold. "Are there humans in Draenor?"
"Yes." Alexei answered, twisting to pull the man slightly away from Ranith. "There's a human outpost in Hellfire. South of the Path of Glory, or it was there the last I heard. If the Legion walks that path, then who knows? And there were humans in Shattrath, before it fell. Now, who knows? Draenor is falling! We left behind everyone who could not make the assault. The old. The young. Her parents. My grandmother. You probably do still have people there; you did when the Legion started to move to the Portal."
"You have asked us for maps of Azeroth. Do you have them of Draenor; especially of this place you call Hellfire? If the Portal opens, I'd like to have some idea of what's on the other side.
"The Legion will be on the other side." Alexei sighed, but pulled a map case from his pack. "If you really want to know, this is Hellfire."
"Have either of you been there?"
"I have, but never as far east as the Portal. Never beyond the Ramparts." He unrolled the map on the floor, "Ranya has never. She was born, bred, raised in Shattrath. The Legion is walking the Path of Glory." He placed a finger in the middle of the map and a finger on the far eastern end. "Puts them somewhere in here, on the road. There's nothing to stop them. Your people were here, south of the road. Maybe they were smart enough to leave, to pull back west."
"Away from the Portal." The man mused, kneeling to study the map. "What is west beyond this border?"
"Terokhar… Shattrath." Alexei unrolled another map, resting a finger on the wide circle of Shattrath, nestled in the hills of Terokhar Forest. "If they went there, they would have found aid, and there were others there already. Khadgar serves A'dal from the Terrace of Light…"
The room stilled, and Alexei glanced over their faces. A name, one they finally recognized. It brought hope, and dread.
"But this Shattrath has fallen?"
"The last I heard, Kael's forces had besieged it. We never received words that it fell, but it would take a miracle to hold it. It was still under siege when I passed it…." His finger skirted north of the city, the path he had taken from his posting east of Shattrath to the pass into Zangarmarsh. "Two weeks ago." Had it only been two weeks? It seemed like forever. Two weeks ago, he had never met Ranith. He was still on lands he knew, with people he understood. He was in a place where he was never mistaken for man'ari, where every thing he met knew exactly what he was… a vindicator of the draenei.
"Part of our job is to believe in miracles, Alexei, and you are too young to be so cold. The Light brings warmth, and chases away doubts."
Ranith sighed behind him, resting her hand on his shoulder. He covered it with his own, patting it for a moment. "I brought my own priest with me for when my strength falters." He stated, rolling out more maps. "Ranith, blessed of the naaru, anchor of the draenei."
"Yes, your shadow priest. Trained by…?"
"The Aldor at Shattrath." She replied, staring bemusedly up at the ceiling. He understood, it was odd to stand in a consecrated place which lacked a naaru. "The priesthood of the draenei. Most of us do not walk in the shadow of the Light, but stand squarely within it. Do not judge my brethren by me. "
"Ranya is a fine priest." Alexei growled, and the man lifted his gaze from the maps arranged on the floor.
"I do not doubt your companion's worth, young paladin. You tell me your people have arrived with many priests, many paladins. I see examples of them before me, and you are both impressive. I was only asking as to the training I can expect from these… which she states are combat ready, after we supply them."
"It has been ten thousand years since we last knew peace." Ranith stated, walking to the dais and placing her palms on the altar. She had the voice of a priest, carrying without shouting. "And unlike you, led by a child who is led by others, we still follow the same person who led us when this started. We have never lost continuity, as Velen remembers, so we remember. Our people are combat ready because it has always been expected of them. The breach is wide and we must fill it… such is why our bodies and our hearts are so large, to bear the weight. Our people count on us, and when we fail, those we love pay dearly."
"You're trying to tell us your leader is ten thousand years old?"
Auberdine had changed in the short time that Roth had been away from it. He arrived flanked by the two draenei, and what had been a quiet dock was now bustling with them. Any doubts that the four he'd glimpsed and the two he'd seen were not true representatives of the race were gone when he stepped off of the boat. If it was possible, the male draenei patrolling the docks was even larger than Alexei. His presence did not seem to bother the elves he passed by; indeed, a few raised a hand to greet him.
"Alexei! Ranith!" He bellowed a greeting when he caught view of the three disembarking the Menethil ship. "Light be praised! I was told you had survived!" He ran over in the bobbing, jaunty stride that appeared to be a racial trait, his tail swinging behind him, and collided with Alexei. "Good to see you, boy." He laughed a deep, wonderful laugh from the pit of his belly… "And Ranith. Lovely as ever." He ruffled the hair between her horns and she smiled at him.
Lovely as ever. Roth had been raised with the races of his alliance, and had grown used to them, able to judge what they considered attractive even if he didn't necessarily agree. A new race brought so many questions with them… Unlike the ones he was used to, these had not been raised on Azeroth. They had a completely different history, culture, society… Was she really lovely to the two, or were they just being kind? He could not judge her appearance from them, if they didn't claim differently, he would dispute that Ranith and Alexei belonged to the same race. She was so much lighter, so much smaller than he was. Everything about him was massive, from the broad foundation of his hooves to the width of his plated forehead. She was deer graceful, deer fragile, poised on delicate cloven hooves and thin legs. He was a true pale blue; she was a dark dusk color. He had forehead plates, she had none. She had horns, he had none. He had tentacles sprouting from his jaw line and falling to his collarbone, her face was clean and chiseled. So many differences…he stared, trying to find similarities. There was a vertical line where Alexei's forehead plates formed, marked by three small domed protuberances, and she had a line of three darkened dapples in the same place. She did possess tentacles, just a line of thin, fragile ones sprouting behind her ears. But they both possessed the same blank eyes of the eredar they admitted to a relationship with, no pupils, no iris. Just whites, faintly glowing.
"It is good to see you alive, Laretos." She stated. "How goes it?"
Again, the laugh. "It is a beautiful day. We live. It goes as well as can be expected, Ranith. You return to Velen?"
"We do. We bring supplies from the Church here. Food. Coal. Blankets, some gear."
The draenei had only asked for necessities, no weapons, and the Church had been happy to provide it. For a people in such an admittedly desperate situation, they asked for little.
"That is indeed good news… Go on to Velen, he is…" The male paused as if waiting for the punch line to a joke, and both Ranith and Alexei drolly replied together…
"He is the Prophet, after all." Laretos chuckled. "Run along children and do not keep him waiting."
Another boat, sailing out into the mist that shrouded the islands, and had named them. "I received reports that things were dying in the water…" Roth stated after awhile, when the water grew dark and coated with a thin sheen of pinkish shine. "The fishing fleet moved away…"
Alexei looked at Ranith, which was his usual reaction whenever Roth asked a question that might be touchy. "The crash caused massive damage to the Exodar. Parts of the ship were breached, ruptured, and there is debris over the whole island chain. I'm not truly familiar with her workings, but the best I can say to explain is that she is leaking, and that what she is leaking is poisonous. That is another reason why we needed to stay unmolested by your people, to give us time to fix this."
"A poisonous boat?" He asked slowly, and she frowned.
"Exodar is not a boat. Not like this is a boat… We could not fit thousands of our people on this. It is the wing of a fortress... Maybe it will make more sense when you see it."
Thousands. When she had claimed that their boat had crashed, it was easy to think small. Maybe a couple hundred or so refugees, a population that would never be more than a very minor novelty, a dying race that would eventually follow that inevitability. But thousands? Of what were described as combat ready and hardened troops? This job of emissary just got so much deeper…
The dock rose out of the mist, and he heard the draenei on it before he saw them. Alexei and Ranith must be remarkably quiet for the race, because this group was loud, jubilant, laughter rippling out over the water.
"Hail the boat!"
"Hail the dock!" Alexei bellowed back, and the guard became visible on the very edge of the dock. Again, massive, and heavily armored, a shield over his back and a rifle cradled in his grip.
"Greetings, friends." The guard said, his eyes skimming over Alexei and Ranith, before falling for a longer moment on Roth. He must have judged him adequately chaperoned, because he only nodded. "Welcome home." He said simply, turning back to the group.
Roth measured them as he crossed the gangplank onto the dock. Combat ready, yes… he'd lean towards combat hardened. They were heavily armed, a rifle team that the Dwarven king would be proud to claim, and heavily armored.
"The Exodar is this way." Ranith said, hopping gracefully to the dock and bounding down the pathway before her. Alexei followed at a slower pace, staying with Roth.
"She forgets she is faster." He said after a long moment. "She'll return."
"Are all your females that…." Roth couldn't come up with an adequate description and merely motioned after her.
"Bouncy?" At Roth's nod, he shrugged. "Most are more. Ranya is normally fairly calm… but they are all very fast. I've seen her jump over something almost as high as you are, and barely break stride. Of course, she was being shot at."
"And they're all that small… in comparison?"
"Yes, Ranya is big for a female. Healthy." He nodded as if that answered it all. "Ah. No, our infants are born small, and grow quickly." He paused in his step, and then gestured forward. "Elekk." He identified the line of beasts tied up next to a tree. "Our beasts of burden. Our mounts."
They were as massively oversized as their owners, giant gray animals on short, thick legs. They had sweeping tusks and a nimble trunk, and tiny useless tails beating against their rumps. "I didn't know we had managed to bring them." Alexei marveled, and then waved at Ranith who was visible under an arch beyond the beasts. "She grows impatient." He sighed, shaking his head.
"Been with her long?" Roth asked, and something about the question must be quite amusing, because Alexei bellowed a laugh.
"Been with Ranya long? No. A couple of weeks." He shook his head, causing his tentacles to bob and sway. "But she's beautiful. I should not complain… The Prophet could have made up his mind that I was destined to be with an ugly woman. Or worse, the matchmakers could have gotten their claws into me…. Welcome, Rothgar, to the Exodar…" They passed into the arch that Ranith waited in, and into the corridor. It was much smaller than Roth had been expecting, tight.
"Be careful." Ranith warned, "It's been cleared, but that's about it. Don't touch anything, and watch where you step."
It dropped at a sharp angle, lit by flickering pink and white crystals. The air smelled of burning, of dust, and of an approaching thunderstorm. The floor was missing in places, the breaches filled by protruding rocks, and plates of glass. It opened abruptly into a vast, bright chamber, large enough to hold the Church in its entirety, shining in pale pink, lavender and white. The central spire was dominated by an immense chandelier, which sparkled and shone, with terraces and ramps spiraling around it.
"You built this?" He breathed in disbelief. This was beyond anything he'd been expecting.
"No, we just provided the blood to claim it back." She dropped to a knee before the chandelier, bowing her head. Beside Roth, Alexei struck his clenched hand to his heart, locking into a position of attention. "An emissary from the Cathedral of Light, O'ros. His name is Rothgar Pollard."
"Greetings, paladin of Azeroth." The voice sounded in his head, in his soul. It felt as if he'd been cold his entire life, and someone had finally drenched him in warmth. "Welcome to Exodar. Your company is appreciated. I am O'ros of the naaru. May your way be blessed by the Light. I see that Velen's chosen have prevailed upon you to come and meet with us. I was not certain you would… Sometimes Rania'ath's mouth opens and she says things she should not. But Velen is the Prophet, not I."
"Rania'ath is her Sha'tari name. Velen pruned it to Ranith. Her loved ones shorten it to Ranya. The one cloaked in blood and garbed in shadow. She is cursed with the tongue of truth. It may get her killed. It may get Alexei killed."
"She is corrupted. The leaders of the Church felt it, but deemed the Light within her outweighed it and that her companion was impeccable…"
"She is corrupted, yes. Again, Velen is the Prophet, and I do not see what he sees. She hears the voice of the man'ari who has claimed her. She may fall to him. I do not know… his arguments are convincing."
"What you call Eredar. The corrupted ones. Those you follow put forth a good argument… the Light is strong in Rania'ath. And her beloved is impeccable. I would be so much more cautious if she stood alone, but she does not..."
"Darkness seeks the beautiful, and apparently, she is beautiful."
It laughed, chiming along its length. "Rania'ath is the beauty that makes the resolve of the men around her strong. The beauty that convinces them to fight beyond sanity. It is a harshly effective tool…"
"Tool?" Too many beautiful women had been the source of corruption, the end of good men. The Church eyed them warily…
"The physical form of the draenei is very closely linked to their souls; their looks are not always a reflection of their parentage. As they fall to despair, their bodies dwindle. Alexei and Ranith are far different than the people Velen knew as his own. They are larger. Taller. Longer. More striking, more imposing, more impressive. And when conflict will rise, the daughters of that generation will be beautiful. One last ounce on the scale to tip in their favor. You are correct, this is probably what has attracted the man'ari... he is still eredar. She is still one of his base race, what he was conditioned to find attractive. But I am fairly certain, as a witness to this for generations, that Alexei is meant to be the focus. Let the man'ari give her courting gifts and point out the obvious, Alexei is the one who stands behind her when she is in danger, who sleeps beside her when it is cold, who holds her when she is frightened. He will be the father of her children and the foundation of her home, not the man'ari… But you have come here to speak to Velen, not speak to me about Ranith's destiny. He seems to believe time is fleeting. He's usually right about these things…being a Prophet and all."
Roth blinked as its attention shifted away. Ranith and Alexei stood quietly behind him, they had dropped the subservient stances they had when they had approached, but they still waited respectfully.
"It is done speaking?" Ranith asked, and Roth nodded. "Then we will take you to Velen." She pointed across the chamber, through the silent naaru. "He's on that terrace over there." She hopped into motion, and Roth followed, taking the moments to gather himself. The ten thousand year old leader of these people, ten thousand years… Only the entities of legends lived that long, and this one had lived amongst his people for that length, approachable.
"What do I call him?" He asked, and Ranith glanced back.
"Velen." She replied. "He has no title. He is just Velen. The Prophet. He needs nothing more… For who doesn't know who, what… Velen is?"
They came behind him, under the scrutiny of the two guards who flanked him, but those remained silent. Roth waited for a painful second, waiting to be introduced, but the guards only stared, Ranith only grinned at Velen's back and Alexei just waited.
"Good afternoon, children." Velen finally spoke. "I hope the trip to the Cathedral was not too onerous after the trip I put you through earlier? That you are fresh, rested, and ready to go again?"
"Where do we go now, my Prophet?" Alexei asked, and Velen turned. He was smaller than the younger male, and he radiated the age that Roth had been expecting. Every hair he had was bleached silver, and he was wizened, so old that he did not appear to be draenei at all… but so very much there. "My beloved and I stand ready."
"I am sending you to the Portal." Velen stated, "I have gathered the most recent information we have on the Forge camp buildups, what we expect to be on the other side when the Portal opens. You've seen most of these, Alexei. You will understand what is coming. Ranith does not, of course, but she needs to learn. You are among the best and brightest we have to offer, and we send you to buttress the portal… with this information, and a strike team. We do not have much time. Your boat will dock soon, you can sleep then…." He breathed, passing the pack to Alexei. "Go. For tomorrow we fight… now, Rothgar, is it? Welcome to Exodar."
"Oh, my." Ranith said dubiously, and the nearest elekk in the hold turned its massive head to stare at her out of one small, beady black eye. It was one of eight carried below deck, interspersed with a like number of talbuk. "We brought mounts?"
"Our orders are to make it to the Portal with all haste." The captain of the rifle team stated, eying the same beast with the same amount of thrill. "I gather subtlety is to be thrown to the wind. We mount our males on elekk, our females on talbuk, and we ride for the Portal. You and the vindicator have war mounts, yours is the dark buck…"
Ranith regarded the creature in question warily. It was a fine example of the breed, but the most riding she'd ever done was to take her father's patrol elekk along the shadow of Shattrath. This looked so much smaller, so much jumpier and inherently less trustworthy than that beast had been. "Talbuk?" She asked slowly, and he shrugged. "We brought more of them than elekk. They do take up less room, and they eat less. I see the sense in it, and the sense in assigning them to our lighter people, but still… Whatever, he's yours."
"Elekk?" Alexei's voice from the hatch. "We have elekk?" He dropped into the hold, looking at the animals with a much greater greed than either Ranith or the captain had managed.
"For you, a war elekk." The man chuckled, pointing at one in particular. It was larger than its companions, a pale silver approaching white.
"Mine?" He asked like a small child promised something he was certain he could not have.
"Yours." The man confirmed, and Alexei stared in disbelief, before the grin started.
"Mine." He repeated gleefully, rubbing the animal's side with his hand. "A war elekk… and a very nice one, too. Which one is yours, Ranya?"
She smiled; it was good to see him in such high spirits. "I am told I am to have this fellow." She grasped the talbuk's halter, and it stared at her warily, rolling its eyes. "The elekk are saved for those who need them. You, in full gear, definitely qualify."
A moment of sadness crossed Alexei's face, and she cursed internally. She had to bring back the joy he'd had, just a second ago. "My beloved." She smiled, ignoring the glance of the rifle team captain at the endearment. "I am so happy to see you happy. If that brings you joy, then revel in it…"
"I've wanted one…" he rested the palms of both of hands against its barrel, "Since I was a child."
"Well." The captain grinned, "It looks as if you've gotten your wish, sir. Good day…" he gave a deep nod of his head and climbed back onto the deck.
"Sir?" Alexei demanded, and Ranith shrugged, releasing the talbuk. It snorted at her, and backed away as far as it could manage, shaking its horns at her. It definitely looked like the start of a wonderful friendship… she wondered if these horse things were any less temperamental, and if so, where they could be found.
"You're the vindicator in charge. You have been gifted a war elekk, and full plate. Sounds like 'sir' to me. So you've always wanted one?"
"Seemed like part and parcel of the vindicator deal." He laughed, shaking his head. "I would have a grand sword, shining plate, a war elekk…" his brow furrowed in thought. "And a beautiful woman… when I grew up. The dreams of children, Ranya. I have the sword. The armor. The elekk. And the woman."
"And you are still sad."
"My heart aches." He dropped his forehead to rest it on the elekk's side. "I did not realize then why the one I watched, who had all that I coveted, looked so resigned. And now I know that he would have given it all up in a heartbeat… to be able to give that woman a safe place to be." He turned away from the elekk, opening his hand to her. When she stepped up to him, he pulled her into his shoulder, resting her forehead against his collarbone. "I would, you know. To be able to tell you we never had to run again, that you were safe. I'd give it all up."
"You're given this to keep me safe."
"I'm given this to try. To fight like hell. It's not the same, and you know it."
"It's all I ask for."
He laughed, a deep, grating sarcastic cough so much at odds to his normal sound that she flinched in his grip. "All you ask for. Liar." He wrapped both arms around her, and leaned his head back. "You ask for the same that your mother did. And just as your father did, I will give it you. You will ask for a home, which I cannot protect. And for children, who I will tear my heart out for. And this terrifies me, Ranya. The thought sickens me. I just want to scream at you, at Velen, that I don't want you…. Little one, I am not strong enough for this."
"Alexei…" She had no answer to that. Their people continued in spite of adversity because of everything he'd just said. Ranith was no fool. Her parents had prayed for a child, knowing the world they would bring her into was one of war, death and fear. And her parents had loved her, cherished her, in the shadow of that. And when the time came, they had torn the bonds and ordered her away… while they made their stand at Shattrath, to give her time to flee, to survive another day. She could not promise him she would not ask it of him, just as he admitted he would give it. "My beloved. Let us sleep." It was a pale suggestion, but the best she could come up with.
"Sleep." He sighed, but released her. "Certainly, my beloved. Let us go find whatever stretch of floor we have today."
The sky was black, relieved by veils of diaphanous color. The ground, red and dusty. The road white, as Ranith traveled it. Before her, a terrace, with tiny steps, leading to the Dark Portal. She felt no fear, only a driving exhilaration pushing her onwards. "Soon, great one. Soon." She turned to the speaker, and looked down when there was no one there. There were so many around her, and they were all so small… the Portal, a passage for armies, so small… the steps… no. Her legs, long and fragile, unclad, a ridge of tentacles hanging from the back of her thighs. She could see her horns, as they swept around at brow height, nearly joining before her. No, all wrong. Ranith's horns swept out to the side and did not come back in. She had six tentacles, and only six, three behind each ear. She had never seen the Portal. She was not this immense. She was draenei, not man'ari.
"Sargeras' gift is still open to you, Rania'ath. Give up this ceaseless running. Are you not tired yet?"
"Of course I'm tired." Didn't that go without saying?
"Besides the draenei, what is there on Azeroth that you care about? The Alliance? They are fractured, contentious. Do you believe they will be able to make another stand? They do not deserve the draenei… to bleed for them, to fight for them. Velen's army of the Light is not here, Rania'ath…"
She jerked awake, and it took her a long moment to orient herself. She was on a boat headed for someplace called Westfall, not…wherever that was. Not there. She blinked, listening. She could hear Alexei, deeply asleep just feet away. He was well, but she was not. There was no way she could sleep again, while her heart skipped and thumped in her chest. She dragged her bed roll right up to the very edge of his, lay back down and listened to his breathing. He slept on his left side, his back to her, and she curled up against him, her forehead in the cradle of his shoulder blades.
"Ranya, are you cold?" He asked sleepily, like a slightly confused child.
"Yes." She was, chilled to the bone, in spite of the temperature, and he put off a great deal of heat.
"Hmm." He breathed, flipping over and pulling the edge of his roll over her. "You are cold. But it is not…"
Not cold. Ranith knew that. She'd been sleeping in the robe's under tunic and breeches, on top of the bed roll. He was sleeping the same way. "I had a bad dream." She explained, letting his measured breathing soothe her. "I'm sorry to wake you."
"Tell me of it, if you remember."
For a moment, she considered taking the out, telling him she did not remember it, that it had fled with consciousness. "I dreamed I was man'ari." His grip tightened, but he remained silent. "And that I walked a road in a place I have never seen before. It was daylight, but the sky was black. The land was red, desolate. At the end of the road was a great portal, Medivh's portal. There were so many things there, just waiting, gathering… And I was not afraid."
"Hellfire's sky is always black, and its ground is red. You either saw our end of the Portal, or theirs. I don't know what sits here."
"We'll find out soon enough." She sighed, and he murmured a vague agreement, already pulled back towards sleep.
Alexei stared over the land, his hand on the elekk's neck. Beside him, Ranith's talbuk danced fitfully, and she had her hands full keeping him calm and firmly beneath her. Alexei would prefer to have her on an elekk as well, but he understood the logic. She weighed a third of what he did in full combat load. She simply did not need an animal as large as he required, space and resources were better served by this.
"This place is… uneasy." He stated, and she tore her attention from the mount to glance around. It was less pervasive than Draenor's blatant despair, but compared to the isles they had claimed, and the heart of Stormwind, he could feel it spreading just under the surface. The fields were sparse, and poorly tended. The farmhouses empty.
"It is, indeed." She agreed, sliding from the buck's back, and dropping to her knees in the dusty roadway. She rested her hands in the dust. "Darkness grows here. It spreads from the direction we travel in…"
He nodded. There was no great surprise in that statement. Darkness spreading from the Portal was to be expected… but he also expected the great defenders of Azeroth to be here, facing it. There was…nothing. No hails, no challenges… he had landed a large group of mounted and armed things on their shore, and had moved them quickly inland.
"Where is everyone?" He asked, and she shrugged, standing and rubbing her hands off on her thighs. The dust remained there for a moment, before the shadow below devoured it, and she was clean again. "Or have they perished?"
"They have…not. Most of them survive. They have fled, or they hide." She fought her way back into the saddle, and got the buck headed again in the direction they were traveling.
"Where are their defenders?" He asked, and she shrugged, exactly the answer he was expecting. How would she know? But if they could not, or did not, defend against this, how did they mean to stand against the Legion?
"Perhaps they have a situation more pressing that requires their attention, and they mean to clean this up later."
"Perhaps." He agreed. That argument made sense, but it still pained him to see a people left undefended. It was a breach of faith…
The yell had been directed at Ranith, by then a few paces beyond his lead elekk. She had passed into a cut in the road, out of his vision, and he cursed, kneeing the elekk. Now, they got a response…. A squeal... female, high pitched, and angry… Ranith. The bleating of an equally angry warbuk… He wouldn't want to be trapped in that cut with the pair of them…
"Your money or your life, woman…!" A male voice, loud over the chaos, and closer to Alexei than Ranith's yell had been… he was going to come into the cut right behind the speaker. "Somebody get a hold of that damned goat before it hurts somebody!"
"What the hell is it?" Another male voice. Two of them, at least. Probably more, if they had managed to stop Ranith. Bandits. Those, at least, Alexei understood. They wanted loot… and the group was heavy with it… A rifle team of fourteen, a vindicator, and a priest… They were worth a fortune in gear alone, if he didn't consider their value in other ways. Ranith was a beautiful young female, from a fine family, untouched, there were those in Draenor who would have paid a fortune for her alone… and she was not the only one in the group. He'd been foolish enough to let them get a hold of Ranith, but he should be able to break this assault quickly, without letting any other advantages slide to the bandits.
There were eight of them, trying to gain control over the plunging, striking warbuk. All human, all touched by darkness, with red bandannas over their lower faces. "Release her!" Alexei boomed, although they had obviously not managed to hold her well enough to release her. It did get the desired response of making him more of an immediate threat, and the men spun on him, still unable to get a grasp on Ranith or the warbuk. She took immediate advantage of his sudden appearance, riding on through the ambush zone rather than trying to fight back to him, and he watched her go with a large amount of trepidation… that had worked so well the last time she'd tried it…
"What the hell…?" The man who had been doing the yelling took a few steps backwards, in the way that Ranith had fled in, opening room between him and Alexei. For what, the vindicator was not certain… good ambush points worked both ways… they now had Alexei on one side, and Ranith on the other, and were pinned into the cut.
"They're demons… demons come to Westfall." Another voice muttered. "Demons… succubi… on demon goats and…that thing."
"Demon… you are the ones who prey on your own." Alexei spat. "And you call us demons."
"He may be a demon." The first speaker, who had commanded Ranith to halt, who had commanded the others to try for the warbuk, noted slowly. "Or probably not. Smells more like a paladin to me… just more of him, so more of a stink. Hit him and I'll bet he bleeds red like the rest of us. Hit him hard enough and I'll bet he dies like the rest, and then we go after the girl. She can't go far."
Alexei pulled the elekk backwards; he'd done what he wanted from a stand here… gained Ranith's release. They no longer had her to hold over his head. If he was alone, he would stand here, where he could minimize their ability to flank him, but the rifle team waited behind him.
"Some demon! See how he runs!" The bandit leader laughed, pulling a bow and letting fly. The first hit, ricocheting off of Alexei's chest plate, and then Ranith shielded him… from wherever she was. She must have turned back, flanked him… he scanned his surroundings quickly. There, the dark cobalt blue and tan of the warbuk vivid against the pale wheat of dying grass, moving on a parallel course to him, she was headed back for the safety of the rifle team. Obviously, going far was never an intention of hers.
Alexei moved through the rifle team, pirouetting the elekk when he was beyond them, to face the oncoming bandits. How you like this? It had been wonderful when it was only Ranith…a little disturbing when she produced her very own paladin protector, but even then, it was still four to one odds… Now it was two to one odds, in Alexei's favor, and he liked that.
He raised his hand, the silent order to prepare for volley fire, and the team brought rifles to bear as one, sighting down the cut. He dropped the hand when the leader appeared, his band on his heels, and the team opened fire. It was over quickly; exactly as they were trained to handle it… they were too few to endanger themselves needlessly.
"You hurt?" He demanded when Ranith managed to get the warbuk back over to him.
"No." She answered, rubbing its bristling mane. "They just managed to keep me from casting. Too damn close, and this thing kept moving."
Alexei refrained from stating the obvious; a war mount was trained to attack, thereby presenting a moving target. She wasn't much of a rider, but she was getting better quickly. By the time they made the Portal she'd be at home in its saddle, and that would be one less thing for him to worry about. "Are they truly human, or just faking?" He asked, studying the bodies. And if they were faking that, were they faking death? Apparently dead was not good enough for him, he'd seen too much in his short life to meekly swallow motionless corpses.
She dismounted again, moving to the leader and flopping him over to his back for a better look. She rested her open hand on his motionless chest, and closed her eyes. "He's quite human. And he's quite dead. Unless you want to bring him back…?"
"No. I like quite dead, thank you. But he is corrupted?"
"Yes." She raised the hand from his chest and waved it over the bleeding corpses. "They all are. They are the symptom of the despair in this region. They prey on their own people, foment fear. Greed and lack has broken them."
He sighed, resting his upper body weight on the pommel of his saddle. "We do not have time to deal with this." Velen's instructions had been clear, as tempting and insulting as this was…
"Agreed." She opened her eyes to him.
"So lay them to rest, and we carry on." He ordered, and she nodded. He'd prefer to leave them dead, and silent. If they had friends, those didn't need to know what had caused their deaths. He and his people had a good ways to go, in unfamiliar territory. The fewer ripples they made the better. He was not here to stand for these people…yet.
She did so, recapturing the warbuk and mounting it with a great deal more practice than she'd started with. He nodded, nudging his elekk to move on.
"Sir." The captain called, and he leaned back to slow the animal's progress. "Those pigs… look to be good hunting. Fresh meat would go down easy on a chill night."
"You mean to eat hellboar?" Alexei asked, and the man shook his head.
"Of course not. But those aren't hellboar, just plain boar. You've been on the Hellfire front too long, sir."
He glanced between the man and Ranith dubiously. Boar was not edible, all deeply corrupted and poisoned. The orcs kept some domestic swine that were rumored to be edible, but that could just be for them, and he'd never been in a hurry to find out. "Ranya?" He asked slowly. If they were indeed edible, a couple would feed the team easily, if he could just overcome the idea of eating one.
She stared at the one in question, holding up a hand in its direction. It continued rooting in the ditch beside the road, unconcerned with her attention. "It is no more, no less, corrupt than any other of the animals around here. I'd rather eat basilisk, but if I have to, I'll try it." She said, and Alexei sighed. That pretty much summed it up. Pig was on the menu.
"Bring it down." He ordered. If it turned out to be tainted, then the world was better off without it anyways. A single, quick shot rang out, and the pig dropped like its legs had vanished out from beneath it. Not so much as a grunt… one second standing, one second dead. "Very nice." He laughed, appreciating sheer competency when faced with it. The man nodded at the praise, dismounting to claim his carcass, slitting it and hanging from his elekk to bleed out as they traveled the road.
"Hold up, Ranya." He breathed an hour later, as the sun fell low behind them, throwing the elekk's deep shadow over her smaller mount. "Crossroads." And, a force watching it, of… four men. Unlike the bandits, these stood tall in the open, their camp obvious to all passersby. Defenders… Alexei was both relieved and unnerved to see them. These must be dealt with, reasonably, and with control. They couldn't just be killed.
"Soldiery." She identified them with the same concern.
"Yes." And they had been seen, hiding Ranith on a dark warbuk was one thing, the shadows loved her, loved it… but hiding him was another thing altogether. "Ride forward three strides, out of my shadow. So they can see you. Then stop." He ordered, and she obliged immediately. That left her visible, but still out of bow range, honorable but not stupid.
"Who goes there?" The response was calm, cold, calculating. A veteran, not so disturbed by something new that he'd lost his head or his nerve. Not ready to panic, but if he got the wrong idea, it could get ugly. "Stand your ground, caster. Come no closer."
Alexei grimaced, sweeping his helmet off. The man was not such a fool to overlook the danger of one lightly armed, unarmored female. He'd been bitten by that one before, obviously. "We have letters of introduction and safe passage from Stormwind." Alexei called, still warily measuring shot lengths to Ranith's most forward position as the man stepped into the road. "And I'll thank you to come no closer, yourself!" The warbuk snorted, shaking its mane and stamping a restive hoof in the dirt.
"Stormwind, eh? Think that will get you far in Westfall?" The man demanded, but did stop his advance, staring at Ranith, then Alexei.
Alexei sighed; he hated playing internal politics without all of the pieces. These were not his people, not his lands. His orders were to pass through, on to the Portal, but he could not do that without interaction with the populace. "We're not here for trouble."
"Pull the caster back, I'll leave my bow, and we can meet in the middle so I can inspect your papers."
A reasonable request, almost too reasonable, but Alexei was left with few choices. They had not been set loose on this region to create chaos. They had been sent to restore order and protect these people. Ranith had tilted her head, watching him out of her right eye, and the man out of her left, while the warbuk shook his horns and snorted. "Pull back, Ranya." He ordered, and again, she obeyed instantly, fading back into the team. The man was dismounted, so Alexei slipped from the saddle and left the elekk behind as he walked forward. No, Ranya. Hold it. If she started casting, it would be over…
The man was hard bitten, older, and he watched Alexei come out of narrowed, set eyes. He was willing to fight, even against things he couldn't identify, and odds he could. "Our papers." Alexei stated, holding out the package in both hands. No sword in hand. No small blade. You see it all.
The man took them with equal care, then studied the rifle team. "Where is the other one?"
"What other one?" Alexei asked, cautiously. What was the man talking about? The fifteen of them stood right there… he counted heads quickly to be certain.
"Your summoner. Where is it?"
"Summoner?" The draenei had no summoners. To dabble in such darkness, never. It opened doors that could never be shut, and beyond those doors, evil waited. That was one of the truths… there would be power, there would be things just waiting to be summoned, but only a fool went that way. "I don't know what you're talking about. We have no summoner."
"Then what is that?" He motioned at Ranith, who had moved to place Alexei in perfect line of sight, off to the side of the rifle team. "If not a summoned creature. A succubus."
Alexei's jaw dropped, and he stared from the man to Ranith in complete and utter confusion. A succubus? Ranith? Priest of the Aldor, anchor of the Draenei people… mistaken for a succubus? His gaze hopped over the rifle team, half female, yes, but they were all helm down, heavily armored, ready for conflict. Only Ranith stood in the open, Ranith, whom the shadows loved. "Ranith is our priest. She will be most…" he could not even begin to guess what she would be if she heard this. "Put out that you think she is a summoner's pet. That is one of my people. A fine example of one of our females."
"Priest." The man dropped the word dubiously, staring at the papers. "I suppose if she's a priest she can heal my daughter, then."
"If you have injured, we would be happy to help you." Alexei offered slowly, and the man shook his head, replacing the documents in his pack. He doubts us, Ranya especially. "I am a paladin. If you have someone who needs help, you need only ask." Look at me. Forget about Ranya for a moment. He was an alternative, perhaps more viable now than arguing with the man over just what Ranith was.
"Giant blue paladins." The man sighed, chuckled. "What is the world coming to?" He glanced back towards the camp then nodded in resignation. "It's not as if you can hurt her. You and your companion. Only. Leave the riflemen… right there is a fine enough place to camp."
"Fine." It was getting dark. They did need to camp, and that was about as good as any spot they'd seen. He strode back, grasping the warbuk's reins. "We camp here." He said, and the team stepped from formation, under the measuring eyes of the stranger. "Ranya, a word." How in the hell was he going to explain this? "They have injured." He began, and she raised a brow… the buck stepping forwards as he sensed her direction. Alexei did not relax his grip on the reins, and the animal stopped, nipping at his hand.
"Then we help…"
"Yes, little one, we help. There's just one very small problem…"
"Vindicator telling me we have one…very…small problem. When does the Legion arrive?"
He chuckled, smoothing a loose tendril of her hair back. "Ranya, he believes you are…a…" Light grant him strength… "A succubus."
"A…what?" She demanded, and he nodded. "Oh, that's just wrong." She wailed under her breath. "I am not a pet, summoned to do the bidding of some glory ridden idiot. I am…"
"Ranith, blessed of the naaru, anchor of the people, yes, I know." He gripped the buck's crest, his fingers deep in its striped mane. "But he's willing to let us look at her. We may be able to help."
"I'm coming." She sighed, and he led the buck towards the encampment. If this wasn't what it looked like, he'd prefer her mounted and ready to go.
There were, in fact, five of them… two women, one upright and glaring, one down, and three men. The younger all had a fairly marked family resemblance to the elder ones, and Alexei labeled them as siblings… the elder their parents. He lifted Ranith gracefully from the saddle and set her on her feet, under deep scrutiny. "I am Alexei, vindicator of the Draenei." He greeted warily. "This is Ranith, one of our priests…" This close, he could feel the illness, and he didn't need the priest to sense they were running out of time. Ranith ignored the niceties, dropping to her knees beside the girl. "What happened?" She demanded, ignoring the hands on hilts.
"She was patrolling the road, attacked by gnolls." The elder man, who had approached them on the road, stated. "The wound became infected, as gnoll bites do… We've tried everything… There are no priests in the area since Stormwind recalled the troops. Are you truly a priest?"
"I am." She found the wound and peeled back the bandage. It was as bad a wound as any Alexei had seen, without a priest or other healer nearby, the leg should have been amputated. But that was a harsh step for parents to inflict on their own child…
"Ranya?" He asked slowly. "That is bad… can you save the leg?" The life was no question, if it came to it, they could snatch the girl back from death itself. Such was the will of the Light…
"I will try." She gripped the girl's thigh, squeezing the muscle mass between her palms. Alexei set his will to stone, and did not flinch in spite of the wailing noise the girl erupted with. The young males moved, and Alexei set his weight behind Ranith, sliding the sword from its scabbard, and going into guard position.
"No." he growled, eying them down. "You will not touch her." Protect his own beloved, one of his people. Protect the innocent and injured girl. If he had to stand down the four humans to do it, then he would.
"Leave them be. If they're not what they say, it does not matter. She will die tonight, tomorrow without help." The older man shook his head, sitting on a stump next to the fire and ignoring them. "I have seen combat priests work. This will not be pretty."
"He has that correct." Ranith murmured in draenei, and Alexei nodded. "You'll need to hold her still. I can give her nothing for the pain…she's too fragile." She continued in the common language of the alliance. "She still cries, which is good. She is not so far away she doesn't feel her body anymore."
He bowed his head, sitting to shift the girl's weight into his lap and grasping her shoulders with his forearms. "Make it fast, Ranya." He breathed, and she nodded, the flash of a silver blade in her hand. She sliced lengthwise down the thigh, starting well above the wound, and he heard the grate of blade hitting bone.
"Done." She snapped, and he nodded. Putrescence flowed from the wound, washed by blood when she gripped the muscles again and squeezed. "Start the heals." She ordered, and as she had done when it was his command, he obeyed. She held the edges of the wound open as he cast the first heal, forcing it to remain open as he pushed the poison out from underneath it. The older man finally glanced in their direction, moved over to watch, ignoring the stares of his own family as they radiated hate and rage. He rested his hand on the girl's forehead, resting against Alexei's upper arm, and then looked down at the spreading mess seeping from the wound.
"Thank the Light." He breathed. "A priest and a paladin, traveling the roads of Westfall again, under crown papers."
"But what are they?" One of the younger males demanded, eying Alexei with bitter caution. "I've never seen the like. Or that behemoth he rode. Or even the goat…" he motioned at the warbuk chewing its way through the wiry grass. "That's no dwarven goat."
The girl slept in Alexei's arms, and he glanced up into Ranith's eyes. "She does well, my beloved?" He asked, and Ranith released the wound, studying her handiwork. There was a scar, deep and freshly purple, but the flesh around it was cool and firm. The fever had broken.
"She does as well as we could ask." Ranith stared pensively at the wound, and he nodded. The girl would live. She would walk. The scar was forever, however, and he could sense a residual weakness. She would limp, slightly. But she would be whole.
"Ranya. It was a grave wound." And it had festered for days. "She will live. She will walk."
"I know." She shook her head. "What are we?" She turned her attention to the eldest of the sons. Alexei shuddered at the question, the last time she'd been asked that, she'd answered eredar. "We are draenei. That is a Kurenai war talbuk, the mount of our allies."
"Never heard of any such." The older man sighed. "And I went north to the plaguelands to fight the Scourge when the crown called. I've been farther than any around here. Never heard of draenei. Or anything else like that."
Ranith covered the girl with a blanket, and left her sleeping against Alexei. "We are Draenei." She repeated slowly. "From Draenor… the homeland of the orcs." That was not entirely true, Alexei could find flaws with her argument, but he understood what she going for. Draenor was a familiar word, a place that this man had heard of and could get his mind around. The obvious similarity between their people's name and the world's name could not be denied, and didn't need explanation.
"Orcs?" The eldest son knelt beside Alexei, staring at his sister. "You come from the world of the orcs?"
"Unfortunately." Ranith managed to put an entire wealth of recrimination behind that one word. "Butchers. I know you have them here. She will recover, mostly. The damage was severe; I could not turn the scarring. I think she may limp a little, as well." She smoothed the girl's hair with an absent hand, gathering up her gear with the other. "Alexei is correct, though. She will live. She is whole."
"And we are in your debt."
"There is no debt. As we live in the Light, we are called on to bring its brightness with us. We are just grateful we avoided bloodshed… What is happening here? You are the first that have seemed to be residents or defenders…"
Alexei perked up, following Ranith's questions carefully. He could hear the rifle team calm after the girl's screaming ceased and all remained still, could hear them joking and working, smell a fire, and then food.
"We've had troubles with bandits for a long while." The older man sighed. "But it remained under control until the crown pulled the army back to Stormwind. They've basically left us to fend for ourselves. We made a militia from the farmers in the area…" he gestured at the family, "But it's hardly enough. Few of us have seen combat, and the bandits grow more brazen every day. Most of the honest folk have fled… perhaps I should have not been so pig headed. Where do you head?"
Ranith shrugged…their way was Alexei's business. "We head to…" he viewed the map in his mind. "Nethergarde Keep. By way of Duskwood, Deadwind Pass, and then on into these so called Blasted Lands."
"Are you fools?" The man demanded bluntly, and Ranith stared at him, perhaps viewing a kindred soul. This one spoke first, and to hell with the consequences. "Duskwood is no place for safe passage, and it just gets worse from there. The dead do not stay dead in that forest…"
"I have a priest. I am a paladin." Alexei replied simplistically. The gifts of the Light, the naaru, were best against the restless dead that lurked in the dark… instead of the demons that comprised the Legion. What the man described was exactly what he, what Ranith, had been born able to handle. After rumors of the Legion rising, it was a refreshing idea. Something to destroy, which needed destroying, and probably wasn't fifty feet tall.
"Damn fool paladins. Doesn't matter if they're blue with bull's toes. They're all the same on the inside."
One of the rifle company brought out pipes, and began to play… the tune jaunty, banishing the darkness that encroached in on the two camps. The others took up the tune, with hooves and hands. "Ranya…. Noooo." He breathed when she spread her feet in a position close to casting.
"What?" she asked, and he sighed.
"We're trying to convince them that you are not a succubus." He pointed out and she pouted, returning to gathering her gear to its place and carrying her things back across the space between the camps. He watched her go, then shook his head, settling to rest more comfortably under the girl.
"What was that?" The older man asked, sticking out a hand. "We've been rude. You introduced yourself. I am Eimer. My wife, Danell. You have Einyella. Meradh, and Ian."
"You are not the first to call our females succubi. There was a human mage whose greatest argument for the idea that they were was to watch them dance. He only half jokingly said they must have traded their wings for free will, and convinced us poor foolish draenei that they were our females. That our women are somewhere, these huge, ogre like brutes, held captive by the succubi armies." She had made the other camp under his watchful gaze, released from the shadows to step into the firelight. One of the other young women pranced up to her, the beginning steps of a girl child's play dance, and Alexei sighed. There was no escape. What was cute when they were hip high was not nearly as cute when they were beautiful young adults. Ranith glanced in his direction, then waved her off. No, she was kind enough to spare him this, thank the Light. And she was kind enough to tend his elekk and bring his pack over. "Thank you, Ranya." He took it, untying his bed roll, and trying to make himself as comfortable as possible.
"I will take her." Her father said, standing to do just that. Alexei was happy to let her go into her father's arms, where she belonged right now. "Go, be with your people. You're close enough to hear if there's trouble."
"Now he says that." Ranith grumbled in draenei, and Alexei chuckled. Yes, now, after she'd already done all his work for him.
"Yes, little one, now he says that." He agreed in the same language, trailing her into the shadow. "I will pay you back one of these days. Care for the buck..oh..a month straight should do it."
"He doesn't like you."
No, he didn't, and the last thing that Alexei needed was to be attacked by a temperamental talbuk. They were vicious little creatures, all horns and hooves. "Eh." He murmured in vague agreement. Thankfully, they also required very little care, preferring to eat what most animals would turn a nose up at. Hers was merrily chewing bark off of a dead tree while the elekk picked carefully through the drying grass beside it. "One of these days we're going to find out that they're advance scouts for the Legion. They're demonic enough…and they have those eyes…"
"Ah…so anything that doesn't like you must be part of the Legion. I see." She retorted, and he laughed as they were absorbed into the team. The piper played a couple more songs, still sticking with his repertoire of bright tunes. They were songs that Alexei had known since childhood, songs for gatherings like this, like the refugee camps he'd been raised in. They were songs to lift spirits and form bonds, and he was happy to lift his voice with them. He should have known better…
The piper grinned, looking between him and Ranith, before putting fingers to the pipe and lifting it to his mouth. The tune he started was much older, haunting, and Alexei froze. Ranith had moved away, working on her camp, her back to the gathering, oblivious. He wished she could remain so, but she would notice eventually, especially with all the staring…
"Enough of that." The captain moved first, crossing the distance between him and the piper, placing his palm over the pipe. "Here is not the place. Now is not the time." He ordered brusquely, and the man changed tunes. When the captain had restored order, he moved to Alexei's side. "My apologies. The pair of you do make a lovely couple, but."
"But." Alexei dropped the word into the gloom, and the older male nodded.
"But." He breathed into the chilling air. "It is cruel beyond words, and most of them are still young to realize that. You have found the one for you, set down by the Light to stand beside you. A wondrous gift and she is beautiful, indeed. You are blessed, you are cursed, and both of you realize that already."
"I swore to myself I would never do this."
"Never fall for a female." The captain chuckled bitterly. "You think you're the first in ten thousand years of hell to say that? I'm smarter, wiser… I will never fall. I will never do that to myself. There's not a female out there good enough for this hell. Countless generations of our people have said that, Alexei…and there's the joke… we still have countless generations. Because of that…" he waved in Ranith's general direction. "Because our females are the most mind bogglingly beautiful creatures ever. Because they grab our hearts and guts, and that's the end of all that wisdom. It's almost sad."
The captain frowned, his eyes locked on Ranith as she worked. "Yes, Alexei. It would be so much worse if they didn't."
The girl was awake when false dawn shifted Alexei out of sleep. He could hear her family talking, trying to stay low, but there was too much relief in their voices to muffle it. He could hear the elekk shifting, the irritable bleating of the talbuk, and the measured voices of his watch. All was well. Ranith slept deeply beside him, her bed roll up against his. Although she was still wrapped in hers, and he in his, she rested against his side, her head pillowed on his bicep. She was warm when he slid a hand beneath her cover, and she slept seamlessly…no dreams sent from the man'ari this night. He disentangled himself from her grip and slid out, stretching and stamping.
"All is well, sir." The watch confirmed. "Some animal movement, but nothing more."
"Good." He glanced at the human camp, but it was still too shadowed, and they sat.
"She woke up about an hour ago, hungry and very thirsty." The watch followed his gaze. "It is a relief after what we heard last night. A wound that caused so much trouble for you… for the anchor… she is lucky to survive."
"The poison was too deep to heal over. It had to be cut out. But Ranith is a good priest, hard when she must be." The priesthood had places for the faint, they made fine archivists and teachers… but out on the line, priests needed to have teeth and a willingness to use them. Velen would not have sent her out if she wasn't one. There wasn't an answer to that statement, and Alexei wasn't expecting one. Ranith didn't need his praise. "So the pig is edible?" He asked, his nostrils filling with the smell of roasting meat.
"Better than edible." The watch grinned. "Damned fine eating, good as basilisk. Breakfast at dawn."
"I want to see!" An unfamiliar voice erupted from the human camp. "If they go away today, then I won't get to."
"She's been wanting to come over and see us since she was told we were here and that we healed her. They've been trying to keep her quiet by telling her about us, but I think that's only made it worse."
"I should probably go check her… I'd like to let Ranya sleep as long as she will." He shrugged. They didn't need to know about the man'ari, but they had to be aware she did not sleep well. Such could not be hidden with their sleeping arrangements.
He crossed over to the family's camp, making certain he made a good amount of noise to announce his arrival. "Hail the camp." He stated.
"See. He comes." The mother chided, "You don't need to go over there." The young males had calmed slightly, obviously heartened by their sister's return to consciousness. They still weren't completely at ease, but Alexei could not help that. Nothing would change what he and his people were born as, and that was foreign to these ones. Time would have to smooth that over.
"I hear her voice… she has awakened." He stated the obvious. "How is she?"
"As well as your priest said she would be." Her father breathed, exhaustion woven into his words. "She lives. She is awake, and filled with questions. Her leg tingles and pulls. She is hungry. Thirsty. When she is well enough to travel, I mean to take her to Stormwind. No insult to you, to your priest…but…"
"If there is a chance to do better, then of course you should. Ranya is a priest, but she is a combat priest. Shadow. She hurts easier than she heals." He squatted beside the girl. She was wide awake, a little too bright… some fever still clung, but it would vanish in its own time. "Good morning, little one. I am Alexei."
"You really are blue." She marveled. "And you really do have things on your face. And a tail. Do you really ride a great gray beast?"
"I do. It has to be great…it has to carry me, and all my armor." He glanced at the camp, the massive bulk of the elekk shining in the lightening gloom. "They're called elekk. They come from the plains of Nagrand, which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen." Or it had been, now, who knew? "How is the leg?"
"It itches. And tickles. My father said you've done all you can… thank you."
"It was our honor."
"Why haven't I ever heard of you before? Your people? I've heard of lots of things I've never seen before. Dragons, tauren, naga… but never you."
So many questions, this was a soul doomed or one that would see enlightenment, as she stuck her nose in someplace it probably didn't belong. "We come from the same place as the orcs here did. Draenor."
"And I hear no love lost." Her father noted, and Alexei shrugged.
"Our history with the orcs is a bitter one. They will answer for their crimes, to us, and to their own ancestors." The orcs were as much of a loss as the man'ari, and as the man'ari's fall had doomed the eredar home world of Argus, the orcs' fall doomed Draenor. "But they are not the enemy."
"The Horde is." The eldest of the young males noted, and Alexei shook his head. No, the Orcish Horde was not…if the orcs were not the true enemy, then obviously the group of them as a whole wasn't.
"The Scourge is." His father disagreed, and Alexei frowned at the unfamiliar term.
"This, I have never heard of." He admitted, which meant it wasn't on his list of enemies at all. "You said you fought them…to the North?"
The girl squirmed excitedly. "The Lich King infected the northland's grain with a terrible plague!" Somehow, her delivery left Alexei believing she failed to grasp the concept of terrible plague and the import of the title Lich King. "It caused the population to rise as an undead army. The betrayer prince went to try and stop it, then he turned traitor and joined. My father went to fight there. He saw a great many terrible things, demons and such."
And the story stank of Legion interference. If it was recently enough for this man to have fought, it had happened after the two unsuccessful assaults. Cull the population, exactly as the Legion had done to the draenei on Draenor, sow panic and dissent, destroy order and leadership. Eighty percent of their population gone after the Legion turned the orcs against them…
"And your dead deserve more reverence than your tone gives them, little girl. And your father deserves more respect. War is hell. It is not glory. It is a bitter, bleeding grind that sane men do only to protect their own."
"You don't sound like a paladin." She retorted, and her father shook his head.
"Then you haven't met any." Alexei growled. Young draenei got this beaten out of them quickly; generations of loss had left its mark on his people. Obviously standing triumphant against the Legion had gone to a few heads…. "May your people stand tall, strong and unbowed. May your children be born in peace." He hopped to his feet, stretching to his full height. "My orders tell me to go. I wish you luck, and would that we could stay…"
Breakfast was being served as he arrived back, Ranith awake and packed, the warbuk on a short tie next to her as she ate. "Morning, beloved." She greeted around a mouthful, and he nodded curtly. "She had a setback?" She asked quickly, moving to set her platter aside and he shook his head.
"No. She is awake…and talking." He tapped the tips of his middle and ring fingers to the pad of his thumb, and Ranith smiled. "And talking."
"Oh. And she talks a lot, I see." She relaxed again, replacing her food in her lap.
"She was telling me of a plague and a war that her father fought in. Quite brightly, too, when the subject was the Lich King spreading a plague across the land, which caused the population to rise as undead."
"They've had a culling?" She stopped eating, fork in the air. He nodded, then motioned at her to keep eating.
"Nothing we shouldn't have predicted. If the Portal is due to open, then those of the Legion here would start the path for them. Eat, little one. It is no worse now than it was five minutes ago. And we have a long road ahead of us."
The family stood to watch the team break camp, the girl's eyes wide as Alexei, armored and mounted, rode by. They rode for a long while in silence, until the road dipped down into a valley, filled with trees. He could feel the corruption heavily in the air… still not as deep as most of Draenor, but by now, obvious. This was by far worse than Nagrand the last time he'd been there, Zangarmarsh… even a great deal of Terokhar, with Shattrath under assault. His elekk strode on, undaunted by the darkness. Her warbuk was not as stalwart, chewing nervously on its bit and dancing away from shadows. The dead don't stay dead here. He could feel it, in the air, the same as in Auchindoun, and he glanced down at Ranith.
"The dead are moving." She twisted her fingers in the buck's spiky mane, and stared at the roadside as he carried her along with jittering and dancing steps. "They do not rest. This is not the workings of Medivh's Portal. This is something else, altogether."
"It feels like Auchindoun, only…" He was reassured by the stolid presence of the elekk beneath him. If he was on that damned goat, he would have killed it by now.
"Only?" she inquired. The Aldor would have taught her what they knew about that, even if she'd never been there herself.
"Only…it's smaller here. There's more, but it's less intense. Many more dead, but they're not as powerful as the ones in Auchindoun."
She only nodded. "We do not know what they did in Auchindoun. The dead that will not rest there are particularly persistent. And powerful. These are just… walking dead. They are diseased, badly. And there are many of them. But… they are not particularly powerful."
Alexei frowned. "Perhaps not, if they had anchors, vindicators. As we've been told…"
"They have recalled the troops." She sighed. "And there are no defenders but militia. Azeroth is not entirely what I was expecting…"
"Me neither, little one." He said, watching the road. There were too many things there, in the dark. The trees grew too thickly. There were too many trails that vanished just out of his vision, and no place to consider camping in. "What a forsaken place." He'd seen worse, but that was on Draenor. Draenor, which had been torn apart by the Legion and their orc minions, rendering the once beautiful world a shattered conglomeration of floating bits. This was Azeroth.
"No place to camp." The elekk were simply too large to fit into some of those spaces, and he disliked the press of cover around them, over them.
"No place I'd recommend." She stared into the trees, narrowing her eyes.
"There's a town, eventually."
"Great. We can be slaughtered as eredar by the townsfolk, already panicked by this." She waved a graceful hand, and the warbuk didn't so much as flinch, trotting busily down the road. She sat him with confidence, her grip loose on his reins.
"You're so hopeful." Alexei grumbled, and she laughed. It was a completely incongruous sound to her surroundings.
"My beloved. You worry too much." She scolded, and he shrugged. Why would he worry? He was a member of a dying race. He was in the middle of completely foreign territory. Surrounded by dead that needed to be reminded that was what they were. Partnered with a priest tainted by a man'ari… who held his heart as surely as she held the elven general's. Heading for Medivh's Portal, due to open soon, and release the Legion gathering beyond it. He and his easily mistaken for demons. Why, indeed? "So we ride on through to this town?" She continued, and he considered. If they did, his people would be road weary and worn when they arrived to an uncertain reception.
"I don't see another choice." He'd like to, but he didn't. "If something else comes along, I'll reconsider. I won't camp in…under…this. There's a crossroads ahead which may be better. I'll have to see it." She did not argue, or even advise, otherwise, turning her eyes to the way before them and riding on.
There was a crossroads, it was better, and like the last, it was inhabited. Ranith halted the buck immediately upon seeing them, and Alexei steeled his nerves for a repeat performance. Two of the guards disengaged from the camp and headed their way, much less concerned than Alexei would have expected.
"Good afternoon, we are the Night Watch." One of them greeted, staring with interest, but not great intent. He looked at Alexei, then at Ranith. "Draenei. What brings your group this way?"
Recognition, finally, and a lack of hostility. The man still stared at Ranith, but Alexei felt no threat from him. "We travel through on Velen's orders. We are to go to the Dark Portal."
"The Blasted Lands are treacherous. And the Swamp is Horde territory." The man shook his head, sending his companion a fairly obvious 'whatever the fools want' look. "But your business, your Prophet's business, is yours. I am not here to convince you otherwise. All I do is say you are on the correct road. That the way was clear on our last pass. And that the inn in Darkshire will be hospitable to weary travelers."
"Our thanks." Alexei granted slowly, and the man stepped out of his way to let him continue. "Odd." He muttered to Ranith when they were beyond the crossroads. "He knows what we are, but stares like a child at you anyway."
"He's seen a male before… he recognized what you were. He was no threat."
"I know that. He was just staring."
"We are unlike anything they've seen before. Khadgar taught us that their people are much the same as each other. Taller. Shorter. Thin. Heavy. But they have all the same parts. Then we arrive, and we're nothing like what they consider friend, and we're entirely too much like what they consider foe. I think it's going well."
She was probably correct, but he still disliked it. Ranya was one of the people, not a freakish curiosity. He was one of the people… he'd never given it much thought, secure in that fact and the knowledge that he was a fine example of what he was supposed to be. He was used to being looked at because he was striking, well built, handsome, a vindicator, not because he had been born with hooves and a tail. The animals here had those. "What bothers you?" She asked after he remained silent for a long, dark time.
"We have hooves. Tails." She did not bother to reply to such an obvious statement, only tipping her chin to look up at him. "The animals here have those. But the people do not."
She considered the statement for a long moment, twisting her leg at the hock and sticking out a hoof. "I have such lovely hooves." She pondered, vanity dripping from every syllable, and he laughed in spite of his mood. "And you have such a magnificent tail. Alexei… talbuk have hooves. Tails. Horns. It doesn't make them draenei, or any other people. They're still goats. We are what we are… the measure of a people is their hearts, their souls. And I'll put our measure against any of these. As for looks…" she shrugged, "I think they look odd. They think I look odd. We are beautiful to ourselves, and that's all that counts… Why?"
"I just worry." He admitted. "We are few, and we are here without an invitation. If our hosts even begin to consider us as not people…"
"That is a deep and grave worry." She agreed pensively, watching the buck's ears flip back and forth as he skittered along. "We must have faith in Velen, in the naaru. Surely they would not have brought us into such a place…"
"They brought us to Draenor…" He stated coldly, and she dropped her foot back down to the buck's side and glumly watched the trees roll by. Velen's directions had brought great costs before. Why not now?
"All I can say is that I stand with you. You are my beloved." She stated, uncannily able to put her finger on just what bothered him. His beloved. Now, it wasn't just him who could be crushed in this. Now, he played the game for keeps.
"Yes, my beloved." He replied, glad for the helm obscuring his face. He didn't want a beloved. He wanted to stand for his people as a whole, which was safe, not for a beloved, which wasn't. If she heard the doubt in his voice, she gave no indication, riding on.
The town was right where it was supposed to be, and Alexei studied it as he followed Ranith in. It was a town. It was inhabited, and guarded, which meant it was doing better than the others they had passed earlier. It was hardly Shattrath, glorious and well built, but it was a settlement nonetheless. And, coming out of one of the buildings, a draenei male garbed in priest's robes…
"Greetings, my brethren." He stated, moving up to the side of Alexei's elekk and running his fingers along its barrel. "Vindicator." His eyes fell on Ranith for a moment, before he studied the rest of the team. "I was not aware we had military assets in the area…."
"We move on Velen's orders." Alexei stated. "To secure this side of Medivh's Portal."
"Oh. I see. We are close to it here?" There was concern and trepidation in his voice, which Alexei completely understood. He was apparently alone, here, and had just been informed that alone might not be such a bright idea.
"The Portal is five days travel from here by fast mount." Alexei stated, dismounting and pulling his map case from his pack. "According to the maps that the Prophet gave me, we are here…." He rested a finger on the settlement, "And the Portal is here." It was a little too close for comfort. The Legion could move fast, and a lone draenei priest would be a fine target.
"So that is why the area is so distressed…." The priest breathed, and Alexei frowned. According to his priest, it wasn't the reason. He glanced in her direction, the last thing in the world he wanted was to get involved in a game of 'my priest is better than you are', but he also disliked having two conflicting answers from the people who should know what the hell they were talking about. Ranith told him no, this one told him yes.
"No." She spoke for herself, sliding from the warbuk and moving over. "The Portal is blameless for this." She knelt beside the map, planting the tip of her finger off to the southeastern side of the Portal, deep in the Pass they had to traverse to get to the Portal. "Here is the problem." She breathed, and Alexei leaned in.
"Karazhan?" He questioned slowly, and she nodded.
"Medivh's fortress. It haunts the region, and will need to be dealt with…later." She rested a hand on his shoulder, leaning against his support. "Such is not why we are here. We go to the Portal, and the Priesthood has sent him here to provide succor for these people. We move on Velen's orders. He moves on the Priesthood's." She didn't have to say more. The Prophet's orders took precedence, always. "Where's this inn we were promised?"
The priest pointed to the building he had come out of. She stared at it for a long moment, then nodded, grabbing the warbuk's reins and leading it towards it.
"Has Velen seen her lately?" The priest asked slowly, still studying the map, and Alexei dragged his eyes from her.
"So he knows?"
Alexei considered asking just what Velen was supposed to know, but he understood the question. "He knows." He stated, and the man raised a brow.
"So you know."
"I know. Velen, the naaru, all tell me she is fine. Who else is there?" The priesthood would bow to the will of the naaru, and the people bowed to the Prophet. Ranith was untouchable under their support.
"We live in strange times." The priest shook his head. "When the naaru accept an anchor which is corrupt. When the Prophet sends forward a champion who is darkened…"
"All I need to know is that they have. She has not hidden from either." If the man was here, for the reason that Ranith stated, then turning back corruption must be his calling. It must be difficult for him to see her, know she was his Aldor sister, and be told to leave her be…which was basically what Velen's refusal to do anything to her was.
"Then my prayers go with both of you."
There were honest to goodness beds in the inn, and Ranith dropped into the decadence of a feather mattress with a long sigh. Beds. And a roof over her head…heaven. Alexei was still outside, talking to the priest…
"Who is warning him against you."
Ranith sighed. She didn't need the man'ari's intrusion to come to that conclusion. Her brother was here to curb the darkness, to become a beacon of the Light here, for these people. She was none of his concern.
"You come closer to the portal."
What was Velen thinking? The man'ari saw what she saw, felt what she felt, and Velen sent her on to the Portal anyway…
"Velen knows I know what is on your side. You tell me nothing I don't already know. By sending you to the Portal, he removes you from him, from Exodar…and from things I don't know. He's quite canny when he feels like it." He paused, thoughtfully, his lovely voice fading slightly. "Are you ready for the Portal to open?"
"No." The Portal should not open again. One of these times, Azeroth would fail to stand against the onslaught….
"You believe you want it to stay closed?"
"Of course." She was tired, it was growing dark and the bed was divinely comfortable. It was easy to drift towards him, his voice….
"If the Portal stays closed, you will never see your parents again."
"They are dead, Shattrath has fallen…."
"Shattrath stands. Kael failed. The draenei, all those Velen was forced to leave behind, the children, are still there. Alive. Her defenders stand."
That was impossible. Ranith crossed her eyes with her forearm, and wished for Alexei's grounding presence. The man'ari's manipulations were so much easier to avoid when he was close by…
"You frighten him. He turns away from you."
Too true. He called her beloved, and many of the times the word reeked of falseness, empty of feeling.
"Never. You are his beloved, much as he curses that."
"Why would you tell me that?" He yanked on the bond, and the inn room vanished. Ranith stood before him, in a room of red stone, with gritty red dust hanging in the air. He was smaller than he'd been in Tempest Keep, only about twice the size of an adult male draenei, still large enough to tower over her, but not so large to make it difficult to converse with him. He wore next to nothing, but she wore finery beyond any she'd ever seen.
"Why?" he demanded, dropping a hand to her shoulder. "Rania'ath, I do not need to lie to you. My position is not so fragile that I need to deceive you. The truth is strong enough. True enough, Alexei loves you. True enough, your parents live. Neither is to my benefit." He dropped the other hand to her other shoulder, shrinking to the size of a large male. "But Alexei… fears you. He runs from everything you represent. He may grow out of it. He may not." He was so close, he made Ranith's head spin from his sheer proximity. His voice, his smell, the touch of his hands… "Velen is the prophet of our people, not me." He kissed the dapples on her forehead, tangling his hands in her hair. "Your parents have loved you, and denied so much of you. They want you to be pretty Ranith, and you're not pretty. They want you to be Ranith, in the Light, and the shadows love you."
"And what do you want me to be?"
He laughed, a wonderful sound. "Rania'ath." Her name became the song it was meant to be on his lips. "Have I ever given you any impression that I wanted you to be anything but what you are? You are Ranith. You are not pretty… you are beautiful. You do not live in the Light, but in the shadows thrown by the brightest glare. I don't ask you to change. I merely make you offers."
"The Gift." She spat it out bitterly, and he took a step backwards, raising a brow.
"No, Ranith. I do not make that offer. That offer comes from Sargeras, and has always been open to you. If you chose to take it, I would be ecstatic… to see you live out of this fear, this desperation. I did not give you life back to see you waste it like this, but that is your decision. That was my gift, no strings."
"Then what is your offer?" The Gift had come as an offer, and it had devastated the eredar. The draenei had learned that offers came at prices they weren't willing to pay… And no gift from the man'ari came without strings.
"Come to me when the Portal opens. Become part of my household, my consort, and I will be able to protect you when Azeroth falls. I will give you a safe haven. I will give you the children to fill it with laughter. I am not afraid, Rania'ath."
"Children?" He had to be joking…
"Children, Ranith. You are eredar. I am eredar. I can give them to you, and I am willing to do so. Alexei sees this as a demand you will make to him, one he should submit to, for your good, for the good of his people. But he doesn't want them. And is that what you want?" He took the step forward, closing the space he had opened up. "I want them. Yours, mine. I would prefer it if you took my side, but if you won't do that… I still want them. Raise them as draenei, amongst the draenei, just give me this… Velen would help you if Alexei would not. Your parents live. They would help you. The priesthood…. You are lovely…. So many males would jump at the chance to help you raise little ones who are fatherless; they'd never have to know."
"Velen would know."
He rested his forehead in the cradle of her shoulder. "Velen would help you. I told you that already. Rania'ath. Come to me when the Portal opens."
The man'ari stepped back, bowing his head. "Alexei grows quite upset that he cannot wake you. It is time you go back to him. Think on this, Rania'ath…"
"Ranya! Wake up. Ranya…"
She opened her eyes to Alexei's panicked face. "Alexei." She breathed, "What is it?"
"I could not wake you for the longest time, Ranya. Are you well?"
"I'm fine, Alexei. I just….fell asleep. The bed, it's cool, quiet…dark. I haven't slept well in awhile…"
"It's fine, little one. You just startled me when I couldn't wake you… they're serving up dinner in the common downstairs for us. It smells good, and I'd hate to see you miss out on some real food when you get the chance of it."
He was right, the food was good. He sat across from her, at a trestle table in the common, his usual self. Ranith could deal with him, but the priest chose to sit beside him, and that was another thing altogether. When had her own started to grate on her? It didn't help that he stared…. "What is your problem?" she finally demanded, and Alexei frowned into his plate.
"My sister?" He did bewildered soooo well….
"You stare. What is your problem?"
"Oh." The priest looked between her and Alexei, obviously hoping that the vindicator would come to his aid. Alexei glared stormily at his mutton, and gave it a big prod with his fork.
"You have been staring at her." He grumbled when the priest remained silent.
"I was just wondering what…" he waved his hand at Ranith vaguely, "…was responsible for this. I can't quite grasp what's happened. I've never seen anything like it. I can try to remove it…. Exorcise it."
The man'ari laughed, deep in Ranith's soul. "Blood of my blood. He believes he can exorcise me. Fool. I'd like to see him try."
"You don't understand it. You've never seen its like. But you want to muck around with it." Ranith paraphrased, and even the even tempered Alexei had to let go of a derisive snort.
"I want to drive the darkness from your soul. You are my sister, you should have been returned to the priesthood when this happened. You should have been sent to Exodar… I find it hard to believe you were not."
"I've been to Exodar several times since this happened. I've been before Velen. Before the naaru." And they'd done nothing. "They tell me to grow up. Keep going. One hoof in front of the other. Who am I to tell them otherwise?"
"I'd still like to try." He shook his head. "It is wrong that we cannot cleanse one of our one, but presume to cleanse these people. And I am certain your companion would feel better to have this relieved…"
"I would, yes."
Ranith glared at Alexei, who only shrugged under her eyes. "To have you sleep again…" he stated. "To free you… I know Velen has told you to keep going. But he has never told us not to see about fixing this."
"Fine. You can try."
He grinned, and Alexei nodded. "We should at least try, Ranya."
"Get comfortable, and we'll get started." The priest began, in that voice that Ranith had tried years to perfect, and had failed. Nothing she did would make her sound that calm, that trustworthy. He'd insisted she change from the shadow robes back into her Aldor robes, and they felt odd, heavy and badly tailored. She closed her eyes, comfortable upon the bed, and a moment later she stood back in the red stone room. The man'ari was absent, and she walked to stand in the open doorway to the balcony. The land beyond was glaring, harsh, red and dusty… and the Portal was visible at the end of the Path.
"My sister?" The priest stood in the room, his robes bright. She looked down at herself, not surprised that she did not wear her own. She did not wear the finery either, but an outfit close to the under tunic and breeches for the shadow robes, an undyed linen tunic and dark silken pants. "Where is this place?"
"Hellfire." One of the great demons moved by, the earth shaking under its four feet as it passed. It did not seem to notice Ranith or the priest, just carrying on its way.
"What brought us here?" He asked, warily eying the pit lord as it stepped onto the Path. Ranith sighed, folding her arms over her chest, crossing her hooves, and leaning against the doorway.
"You have, my brother. You have. You wish to exorcise me."
"Yes…to convince the spirit that has locked itself onto you to let go…"
"No spirit has locked onto me." That would be entirely too simple. If it was that easy then Ranith and Alexei could have probably managed to break it. If not, then certainly the priesthood at Exodar would have been able to. "The entity which has claimed me has brought you here to face him. That is what you intended to do, correct?"
"Then we must come here, to this side of the Portal. Where he is." She could feel him, he was close by. "Don't worry. You're not really here. Your body is still in the room with Alexei, who will wake us up when he becomes concerned."
"Rania'ath." That voice. "I was not expecting you to come see me so soon after the last time. And you brought company." He stood off to her right, the balcony level with his chin, at his full height. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"He wishes to exorcise me."
"You are not possessed. As you've already noted, no spirit has attached to you. Therefore, you cannot be exorcised. Good afternoon, priest of the Aldor. Dallen, it is?"
"Man'ari." The priest whispered, and the man'ari chuckled.
"He is quick, Rania'ath. I am Gaerien, the one who claims her, priest. She owes her life to me. My blood runs in her veins. My gifts clothe her. I can assure both of you I have little intention of letting go, so…priest. What now?"
"This is what has corrupted you? And Velen…"
"I am what has corrupted her. It was either that, or let her die at my feet, and she was entirely too lovely for that. As for Velen… he is a pragmatist. He will not throw away his resources, he has too few to waste. He sends Ranith far away from Exodar, out to the Portal, knowing the gifts she was born with, and the gifts I have given her, will serve her well. Velen is not trying to cleanse her, young priest. He means to use her as she is, and he knows there is but one way to break this."
"To kill me. I have not died in ten thousand years, and I don't intend to start now. Now, shoo. I am busy." The priest vanished, gone… and the man'ari sighed. "Pest. Good day, Rania'ath. Sleep well."
She blinked, and was back in the bed, Alexei holding on to her hand, and the priest silent in the corner. "This cannot be broken." He finally admitted. "I do not know what the man'ari has done, but it is irrevocable. He claims she lives because he has willed it so…"
Alexei sighed, resting his forehead against her hand. "She was injured during the assault on Tempest Keep, to take Exodar. She was cut off from us, her strike team. She ran deeper, hoping to intercept another strike team… What I gather is that she ran into the man'ari while she was fleeing. She was badly injured… poisoned… We found her in a casting circle, hale. Since then, she has borne the man'ari's gifts. I can assume he prevented her death, therefore..."
"She does owe her life to him, and he holds her to that debt."
"Sleep, Ranya." Alexei stood, bent over, and pressed a kiss to her dapples. "Enjoy the bed. We travel in the morning." And it was remarkably easy to sleep.
"We should be able to pass through without coming into view of this Karazhan." Alexei stated, studying his maps, and Ranith nodded. That was a good thing. It was enough of a blight to do this to its surroundings; she didn't want to go there. Such a coward…how did her parents' blood produce this? They stood at Shattrath…
"And you stood at Tempest Keep. There is a difference between cowardice and wisdom. Velen ordered the assault on Tempest and you rose to those orders, because you believed in his wisdom, you believed taking the fortress was a necessary duty for the survival of your people. Karazhan is a foolishness for you right now, no wisdom in it. Skirt the dead there. Carry on to your objective."
Which carried her so much closer to him. He gave no answer to that thought, and she grimaced, looking down at Alexei. "It is a good thing." She finally stated. He'd been quiet and distant since the exorcism attempt.
"Yes." He agreed, rolling up his maps and replacing them in their case. He mounted the elekk in silence, "Let me lead, Ranya." He said when she started off, and she pulled the warbuk back to let him take lead. He remained distant through the pass and ahead of her as he was, she couldn't converse with him anyway. She was left alone, watching the warbuk's ears bob, alone considering offers that shouldn't be considered.
The pass emptied into a marsh, heavy, close and wet. The warbuk disliked the footing, snorting and dancing, requiring so much attention that it took Ranith a long moment to realize that Alexei had halted. He said nothing, which was pretty much his usual for the day, and Ranith pulled the warbuk down when it came alongside the elekk. He glanced down at her, and then motioned before him. She followed the gesture, and froze. "Ah, no." She breathed. There were three of them, one larger than the others. They were grayish green, corpulent and hunched… a grotesque parody of their parent race. They had lost their hooves, balanced in the muck on two toed feet. The taller of them made a threatening gesture at Alexei, and gibbered nonsense. When Alexei did not move, they slunk into the undergrowth.
"What is it?" The captain demanded, pulling his elekk up on Ranith's other side. "Orcs?"
"Lost ones." She sighed in answer, and he stilled. She'd rather see orcs than her own people, lost and deformed, cut off from the Light. The man'ari had been protected by the Gift, the draenei by their continuous relationship with the naaru…
"Damnation." He growled, staring in the same direction they were. "They like swamps."
Ranith nodded. The Portal had opened into a swamp on Azeroth. Those draenei who had passed through to collide with the Legion on its last excursion had been trapped, left behind. The loss had broken them, and they remained close to the Portal, in this swamp. "We should carry on." She said, staring at Alexei.
"Of course, little one." He agreed, moving on, and the captain dropped back.
"Alexei." She did not drop back, keeping the buck even with the elekk. "What is bothering you? You've been nothing but doom and gloom since this morning. It isn't right."
"Does he hurt you?" The question was vicious and fast, under Alexei's breath.
"Me." The man'ari's voice was quiet. "He is afraid I hurt you. That I frighten you. He is afraid you are putting on a brave face, and that I torture you when you sleep. He is beginning to realize he can't stop me, and that he can't protect you from me. It bothers him."
"No, he doesn't hurt me."
"Would you tell me? Because you know there's nothing I can do…"
"I don't know. I don't think I'm that brave. I'm too spoiled for that… I'd whine." She chuckled, relaxing as the buck found a path and better footing. When had he gotten the idea that she was that kind of person? Didn't he know her better than that?
"Certainly, Ranya. Just like you whined on the trip to Tempest Keep and every point since then. You whine so much my ears bleed listening to it. The only whining I've heard you do is to whine that you're a whiner, that you're spoiled. Forgive me if I've stopped believing it sometime in the past two months."
"He doesn't hurt me." She repeated, and Alexei nodded.
"If you need me, little one. A shoulder to cry on… a chest to pound on, I'm here. I swore to stand behind you…"
"I know, Alexei. I know. Honestly, he just talks. He tells me things. Things I don't know if I believe."
She frowned, studying the path before the buck. "He tells me Shattrath has stood. That my parents live." It was the safest of the information imparted by the man'ari. "That, when the Portal opens, I can see them again."
Alexei's brows lowered, and his face darkened. "He hasn't asked you to help open the Portal, has he?"
"No. He seems to assume it will happen as Velen does. I would not help with that, Alexei… even to see my parents again. They would never want me to." Such a betrayal… the very idea made Ranith ill. It didn't matter, though. Velen said the Portal would open, so open it would. He would not send Ranith to do it.
There was a spirit standing beside the pass out of the swamp, and Ranith narrowed her eyes, letting the buck have more rein so that she made it there before Alexei. Orc ancestor, lost here, and not laid to rest by a shaman…odd. He stared at her for a long moment before his eyes went back to the swamp. "Go, young one." He breathed. "You cannot aid me, and I will not harm you."
"What is it, Ranya?" Alexei demanded, and she turned away from the spirit.
"Orc ancestor. Fallen, and not laid down."
"Ah. He will let us pass?"
"Yes." Ranith stood by him as the team passed, in case he was not as obliging as he'd first seemed, but the spirit only watched them silently. When the last of the team had gone by, she gave the buck rein and rode through herself. The path fell lower, and she stared at the way… she'd seen this before, in visions granted by the man'ari. This was Hellfire… from the red earth to the black sky. There were hellboar rooting in the dust, and basilisk sunning on the rocks. The Aldor archives told the lands beyond the Portal were swamps…
"This is not right." She said, and Alexei turned his head to regard her. "The history says these lands are swamps, like the one we just came from… This is Hellfire all over again…"
"This is the Legion's work." Alexei answered, pulling his helm from his head and staring around. "It probably was a swamp. Now it's a toehold."
"There is a good thing to this." The captain chuckled from behind them, and Ranith looked at him dubiously. "Basilisk for dinner, yum. Regular taste of home."
He was correct about that. It was a regular taste of home, with a belly full of basilisk; Ranith was content to drift in and out of sleep, comforted by the snap of the camp fire and the familiar voices of the team, of Alexei. It was all good, tucked up in her bedroll, under the unrelieved black of the sky. By the time Alexei laid down beside her, she was deeply asleep, and her dreams were all her own.
She was awake before Alexei, keeping the last watch company when he finally stirred. A quick breakfast and they were on the road again, heading forwards. It was past midday when they crested a rise, and Ranith pulled the buck down. It had been part of history, part of visions, but now, before her… Medivh's portal. Real… taller than the greatest man'ari… wide enough for an elekk mounted team to cross side by side. It was right there.
"Vindicator… those are orcs… and some other…somethings." The captain stated, spyglass up, caution deep in his voice. "The usual array of demons… nothing big. Alliance camp on the other side."
Her vision was not as sharp as his with the spyglass, but Ranith could see that there were several bipedal forms down there, which were not demonic. Other somethings. That sounded…fascinating. Orcs, not so much.
"We'll ride around to the alliance camp. If they're not fighting, then there must be a reason." Alexei nodded at his own logic, and proceeded to follow it, moving the elekk back and around, coming up behind the alliance camp.
Their watch, a handful of very short, very wide, humanoids, stared in obvious disbelief and trepidation as they pulled their mounts to a halt. Another came from a tent, this one female, and she stared as well. "You must be these draenei I've been hearing of." She finally said when the silence grew too long.
"We are." Alexei confirmed, sliding from the elekk. Even dismounted, he still towered over her, and Ranith could feel his discomfort. "Velen has sent us to help secure this end of the portal. What goes with the orcs?"
"Their shamans say the spirits tell that the portal will open soon. Basically their story is the same as yours. Your prophet says it. Their shaman. They come to hold the Legion off… Thrall has no love for the Legion, either. His people are useful, and if they've got something to hold their attention, not much trouble."
"Warchief of the Horde. We are supposed to have a truce with them." She shrugged. "Most of the time, it works. I understand your people have some antipathy for the orcs…"
"They've killed eighty percent of the people we had on Draenor… I'd call it more than an antipathy." Alexei growled, and her brows rose.
"Fine, open warfare." She sighed, shaking her head. "You're not going to indulge that here. If you can't handle that, then go back to your prophet. We are more than happy to take your help, if you are truly here for that. Part of helping is not destroying the truce."
"What are the other things?" Ranith asked, half because she wanted to know, and half to give Alexei time to chew on what he'd just been hit with.
"The big things." The captain specified, and the woman laughed.
"I'm assuming you mean the tauren. The big cow things." At his vacant look, she frowned. "Cow. Type of animal. Horns. Tails. Hooves. Tauren are one of the races of the Horde, come here…" she moved on to another tent, and shade fly, which sheltered… a bipedal, garbed animal. If Alexei feared that the draenei looked too animalistic, he'd obviously never encountered this before. It had a coat of fine hair all over, in a spotted pattern of dun and white. It had only two fingers and a thumb on each hand, all massively huge.
"Afternoon." It said. "You must be these draenei the crown sent us word of. Come to take your turn watching the Portal?"
"The Prophet has sent us to secure this end of the Portal… it will open soon." Ranith managed, which was more than the two males did.
"So the shamans say. So Thrall says." It shrugged. "We will hold position, no matter. We were here before this. Perhaps you're all correct. Or not… it's not the first time people have said it was ready to open."
Ranith only nodded, arguing that their Prophet was better than that would get her nowhere. The only thing that would prove that was when the portal opened before them, and that was something they didn't want… "Let's go secure it as ordered." She sighed… politics was nothing she wanted to play.
"They just come back if you kill them… think we haven't tried?" The short, short woman asked, and Ranith gazed down at her. It was a thankless job, watching a portal that did nothing, for however long they'd been doing it. If they'd grown complacent, it was easy to see how, and theirs was obviously not the first warning. There'd been others, which had proved false.
"I understand that." She used her best priest voice, "And you need to understand that we have to follow our orders. And our orders are to secure this end."
"Right." Alexei agreed. "Secure the portal." He grinned, killing demons was something he understood and something he was good at. "We didn't see any of the big demons coming down… where are they?"
The short, short woman stared at him like he'd lost his mind, and a warning rose in Ranith's heart. She had no idea what he was talking about… Ranith walked from the camp, Alexei on her heels and climbed the rise to overlook the crater that the portal inhabited. The short, short woman followed.
"Ranya. You've seen the portal, from the man'ari's eyes." Alexei said in draenei, and she nodded. "You know what I'm talking about?"
"The pit lords. The maidens." She replied in the same language. These were small, a pale shadow of what waited on the other side… "This is…nothing."
"No wonder they're so calm about this."
"Take them down. Give us access to the Portal apron, and secure this end to allow troop movements."
He nodded, jumping into motion and gesturing at the team. Each of them was trained, experienced, and geared for this. Ranith smiled when they unloaded on their first target, in full view of the orc contingency. They'd think twice before considering the draenei here a target…
She moved down, following the wake of destruction until she reached the steps up onto the portal's apron. She climbed them, the vast portal towering over her, and moved up until it was the only thing in her perceptions.
"Ranya?" Alexei demanded, and by the sounds of his armor, he was taking the steps two, three at a time to close with her, still worried on some level that she was part of what would open this. But she wasn't… she reached out and placed her palms against the void. It was still closed, but whatever was to open it was already underway… it was failing, giving under her touch, degrading. It vibrated under her fingertips, warm and nebulous. Soon. So very soon.
"We don't have much time." Whatever doubts that Ranith might have harbored were gone. This was the portal. It was here. And it was opening.
"We don't have enough here to withstand a full assault." Alexei sighed, resting his gauntleted hand against the void. It visibly gave, and he snatched his hand back. He glared at the nothing for a long moment, retreating a half step. "I fear Velen may have sent us on a suicide mission."
"Well, the way is clear, which is all he asked of us."
Alexei glanced between her and the portal, then laughed, clapping her on her shoulder. "Wondrous!" He crowed, balancing on his hooves and stretching to his full height. "We have successfully completed our suicide mission." He picked her up and balanced her weight on his hip as if she was a small child, descending the steps and heading back for the camp. Ranith wrapped her arms around his neck and went along with the ride. It was time to set up camp, and wait.
Reinforcements arrived the next morning, and Ranith realized that their team had just been a scouting element… A full dozen teams, with support, had followed them from Exodar. This was a force large enough to hold an assault, proof that Velen had not given them up to a suicide mission.
"Fine. You're right." Alexei chuckled, after his eyes had measured the newcomers. He raised a hand in greeting, trotting up to the leader. The draenei reinforcements were not the only ones to arrive… Alliance and Horde reinforcements arrived over the morning, and parties from the neutral groups followed in the early afternoon. Ranith stood, and watched, straight down the path from the Portal. After awhile, Alexei stepped up behind her, silent and imposing. He said nothing, for there was nothing to say.
"Ranya." He breathed when the blackness in the gateway flowed, rippled, lightened. "Know this. You are my beloved." He punctuated his words by clapping his hand down on her shoulder. "We are draenei. And we fight today." She could feel the units coming up behind him, drawn by the change in the Portal. "Ranya, behind me." He ordered, and she allowed him to move her behind him, grasping his tail again.
The gateway shifted, brightened, and the first through was a felhunter, a doomguard on its tail. "Gooooo!" Alexei screamed, and she felt the bunch of his muscles as he readied to charge. "It is open!"
He yanked her forwards, into a moment of nauseating nothingness, and then the world was exactly as in Ranith's visions. The great demons, so much larger than those on Azeroth's side of the portal, strode towards the opening, and Alexei rocked back on his hooves. His weight set, he began casting. She felt the touch of the Light in this forsaken place as he brought down blessings, and she countered with her own. Again, the stakes were high and the activity was chaotic…and again, Ranith was not afraid. She stood behind Alexei, and he would keep her safe. And likewise, she would keep him safe. That was how it was supposed to be.
Take the fight to them. Keep them off of Azeroth. Stand here, on Draenor, where they already had a toehold. Stand here, on Draenor, Ranith's birthplace, Alexei's birthplace. Stand here, at the end of the Path of Glory, and do not give. She narrowed her eyes, focusing. Alexei was first, he must stay up. He must stay alive, and to keep him that way would require most of her resources. For the first time in her life, she cursed her lack of ability to heal… His own aptitude added to hers would just have to be enough, if he slowed down enough to heal himself.
He charged the closest of the great demons, ignoring the small flotsam bound for the portal. The forces on the other side, even as unprepared as they seemed, could hold doomguards…or so Ranith hoped. If they couldn't, it was a lost cause.
She began casting, fast and hard, running through power as if it were water flowing through her fingers. At this rate, she would be useless in moments, and Alexei would fall…. It would all be over. But if she slowed, if she stopped, he would fall…. No.
"Tap the blood within you, Rania'ath. Let it carry you, carry Alexei, through this."
Owe the man'ari…more than she already did. Ranith didn't need the congealing fear in her stomach, that part of her tied into the naaru's wisdom to advise against that. She already owed so much…
"If you do not, Alexei will die, and you will go down a moment later. You will be heroes. You will be martyrs. You will be dead. Your parents will mourn the loss of their only, and none will mourn Alexei."
No, not that. Anything but that. She tore open the power within her, the man'ari's true gift, the claw he had placed in her soul, and a world away, Velen, the Prophet of his people, raised his silver head and focused his eyes on an empty wall of Exodar. After a moment, he went back to his reading…. Destiny played out, as it had for ten thousand years, and he was often merely an observer.
Alexei was still alive. How, he wasn't certain…. His armor was shards, most of it strewn across the apron, crunching under his steps. More than alive, he was pretty much uninjured, untouched… even the finest Aldor holy priest could not have kept him up through that…
He turned to Ranith, the first stirrings of concern rising in his heart, just on the heels of battle lust. She stood exactly where she had released his tail and chosen to make her stand, and he let the sight of her comfort him for a second. That was how long it took reality to chase away comfort… like him, she appeared untouched. Although the day was still, the dust of combat lying uneasily in the air, her skirts flowed and clung to her as if she stood in a sharp breeze. Her hair was loose, her hands cast out at shoulder level. Her eyes were closed, her head lolled slightly to rest on her shoulder.
He strode towards her, his steps bleeding from a walk to a run as panic kicked up enough adrenaline to get him going again. "Ranya!" He bellowed. She stood in the middle of a casting circle, the same as the one engraved on the floor of Tempest Keep, gleaming with blood. "Ranya!" he repeated. She opened her eyes, steadied her head, and her skirts dropped motionless.
"Alexei." She breathed, and his heart clenched. He'd heard her after a forced march. After the assault on Tempest Keep. After the Exodar crash. But now, for the first time, he heard utter exhaustion in her voice. "Alexei, my beloved."
"Ranya. Come out of the circle."
She dropped her head to study the circle, now that it did not channel power, already becoming obscured by dust settling in the congealing blood. She stepped over it on shaking legs, and he gathered her up the moment she was beyond it. "Ranya, my beloved." She was trembling in his grasp, shattered.
"I did it." She murmured, and his heart dropped.
"Ranya." He mourned, dropping to a knee on the apron's grit. "Ranya. No. My beloved…" The only reason he had stood was because she had kept him that way, and it had come at a price he didn't want to contemplate. "Why?"
"Because you are my beloved." She replied in the voice of a child pointing out the obvious. She rested her hand on his chest, on the necklace visible through the remnants of his shirt. "Silly." Her fingers played with it for a moment. "Alexei. I cannot stay much longer…"
He sensed that, his soul understanding more than his mind did. "Where?" She couldn't die. There was something else…
"He calls me, Alexei. The man'ari. Gaerien. I took too much from him… and he exacts his payment now." She wrapped her fingers under his tentacles, pulling him down. Her lips were chill under his, trembling, and he clenched his eyes shut. No.
She was gone when he opened them again.
"Rania'ath." Gaerien's voice, still as lovely as ever, and Ranith turned, fighting the disjointed and distant feeling in her head, her soul. She looked so lovely, why did she feel so empty? Alexei lived. She had succeeded. Would she feel less empty had he died? If he had been reduced to a carcass, breached and bleeding, just under the portal? As he'd told her once, dead was just a hunk of meat, rotting. "You are beautiful."
I don't want to be beautiful. I want to be whole.
"You will be whole, Rania'ath." He breathed, moving up behind her and pulling her into his embrace, his lips on the nape of her neck. "I will fill you with children. And you will be more whole than you ever were serving the naaru. Serving the Aldor. Serving Velen. You did not fail, my song, you succeeded at every task they set you on. It is just time to turn away, to rest as they have not let you."
I want Alexei.
"Alexei lives. He breathes." The man'ari's hands were gentle, his voice more so. "He mourns, but he will recover in time. There was not enough time for him to grow so close to you that he cannot find another. It was only a few months, Rania'ath. It seems more, but it was no more. Count them."
He was correct; she was mooning over a young man who had only been with her for a few months, a single season. Then I gave up my soul for a petty crush? It had been that important on the apron…
"You have not given up your soul, Rania'ath. If you had, you'd be man'ari, or broken. If you had, none of the naaru's gifts would work. Try them. See for yourself."
She did, and for one horrible second, nothing happened. Then the mark flared into existence with the same brilliant affirmation as it always had. The man'ari could not replicate that. It could not be forged. The naaru, the Light… was there. Far away, but still reachable. She had not given away her soul to save Alexei… "I have never asked you for death, Rania'ath. I have given you life, more than once. I have given your beloved life when he should have died. I ask for life in return. I have not gouged your soul. I have not marked it any more than I was forced to keep that life. You are drained, stunned, and mourning. You are not empty, what you need is sleep. Give me what I want, and you will sleep."
Ranith was too tired, too lost to fight. It was just too easy to give up and let him have what he wanted.
Alexei retraced his journey to Exodar, ponying Ranith's warbuk from his elekk. He would have made poor company for any companion, but unlike the last time, he made the journey alone. Return to Velen. Why? For the first time in his life, Alexei was bitter, doubting. If Velen was truly the Prophet of his people, how had this happened? Velen had known the man'ari had hold of Ranith, but had turned his back on it. He'd sent her on, to the Portal. Velen had failed… and he, Alexei, was paying the price for it. His beloved, gone. He ignored the sane part of his mind which reminded him that Ranith could scarcely be called beloved. He'd been on maneuvers which had lasted longer than his relationship with her. He'd never devoted himself to her. He'd never touched her. But in spite of that, she'd given everything she had, and more, to keep his foolish life intact. And she'd called him beloved when he asked her why. That had been her reason. She'd been willing to do more than just call him that; she'd been willing to stand for it. She'd been willing to stand for him, when he needed it the most. Maybe he'd done the failing… He cursed vividly and spat. He was growing tired of retracing his path…it was the only way to go, but it came with too many memories. He was moving quickly, alone, and light… his armor shattered on the apron and never replaced.
He reached Darkshire early, having ridden through the night. While he almost relished the idea of trouble, his way had gone smoothly.
"Vindicator Alexei?" The priest demanded, emerging from the inn, and Alexei reined in his tongue. This one had at least tried. He'd faced the problem, acknowledged it, and attempted to remedy it. He had wanted to be part of the answer. He'd treated Ranith like the sister she was said to be, unlike others.
"Yes?" Stop or not. Interesting question. He had no time that he was required to keep, but his news was still dire.
"Are you well?" The man looked between him, and the empty saddled warbuk, the question hanging unasked but obvious.
"The Portal has opened." Alexei snapped, deciding that yes, he would stop. Even if he didn't need it, want it, the animals were worn and showing it. Even the damned goat had lost its jitter. "We forced our way back to Draenor to keep them from this world. So far, the line has held."
The man almost replied, but his eyes went back to the buck and he remained silent. "And my sister?" he finally dredged up the courage to ask, and Alexei didn't have an answer adequate to the question. The priesthood would eventually need to be told what had happened. Ranith had been one of theirs. She'd fallen to corruption. He understood that, but he couldn't bring the words into being. "She was…lost… at the Portal." That simple sentence was as difficult as the trek to Tempest Keep, and the man's face fell.
"May the Light keep her." He wished, and Alexei only nodded. Ranith was not dead. If anyone needed the Light's intercession, she did. It was a dark thought, one he dreaded. It was one thing to hear of this in old stories, another to have known the fallen one. Ranith wasn't just a name to him. She was a smell. A laugh. He'd touched her. Carried her. Trimmed her hooves and held her as she slept. "Where do you go now, Vindicator?"
"I am recalled to Exodar." He stabled the animals, eying the dispirited goat. The animal had not been the same since the last time Ranith had ridden it, and for some reason, Alexei could not leave it behind. "The Prophet calls."
"It is hard to be one of his chosen." The man sighed, and Alexei had no answer. As an adolescent, he'd never even truly dreamed of the honor of being one of Velen's chosen. Now he was one. And it meant less than nothing. All he wanted was Ranya back, asleep with her head on his belly and her knees tucked under his armpits… "Do you need help? There's an armorer in town…"
Alexei shook his head. It had been years since he had truly been without. Even as a juvenile, he'd served as camp guard, in leather. When he'd been accepted as a vindicator, he'd gone into mail. As Velen's chosen, he'd warranted plate. Now…what? The leather was long gone, the mail salvaged, and the plate shards caught gleams of Hellfire's sunlight, spangling the apron of Medivh's portal until the passage of demons and Azeroth's defenders would knock them aside with the sand and dust. He didn't know what he wanted, and he didn't have time to wait. He was old, tired and worn, sad for someone so young. "I don't have time."
The man bowed his head. "Of course, vindicator. My prayers go with you, and your fallen."
Rania'ath, consort of the man'ari Gaerien, bloomed with life. It was still very small, but she sensed it under her fingers when she rested her hand on her belly. "Yes, my consort." He stated, placing his hand upon hers. "I feel it."
She stared at his hand…it was crimson when it should have been the same blue as a spring sky. His voice was beautiful, melodic with emotion, but his face was always still. He called her by a title he gave her, consort, or by the full length of her name, and she missed endearments… Ranya, little one… beloved. Everything was so beautiful. Her surroundings. She was, from every hair on her head, every thread and pearl on her gown. So beautiful, so pampered, so spoiled. She turned her face away from him, burying it in the velvet pillows she rested on. She yearned for a bedroll smelling of salt and male, out under the stars. The smoke of a campfire, the voices of friends. She yearned…
"Rania'ath. My song. You bear a child. Your child. Does this not make up for any of that? Your mother, your father, yearned for years for this. They prayed. They begged. And it has come to you so swiftly, so easily." He spread his fingers out over hers. She wished she could be as perverse as normal, but that part of her seemed to have fled. A child. It should be Alexei's….
"It is yours." The man'ari ground out again, and she sighed. His patience was not infinite, she had discovered. And he had a point. A child, hers. The more her mind worked its way around that, the less she backed away from the idea. Alexei didn't want them, but she wanted this one. "And mine. Come with me, my consort."
Ranith would have preferred to stay, to sleep as she had done since coming here. The terrible lassitude and drowsy days had passed the time, if not quickly, then with an insulated lack of trauma. If she woke fully, if she followed, then she would know the truth of her life.
"I want to sleep." She whined. Just being here, looking like this, treated like this, brought out the worst in her, and she despised herself. She was her family's precious, coveted little girl again, and she was losing being Velen's chosen, Alexei's beloved, in this. Even the touchstone of the priesthood was bleeding away.
"You've slept enough." Gaerien sighed, managing the same half indulgent, half disapproving tone that her father would have given her. "Up." It was a direct command, and those she could not deny him. "Come with me, my consort." The same words as earlier, but he made them a command instead of a request, and she fell into step behind him. "My attentions are required elsewhere." He stated, "Azeroth awaits me. And Velen. But you may not sleep the entire time I am away. My child will require a mother, not a comatose doll. And you are my consort, not my toy. Had I wanted that, I could have arranged that easily."
"Then why didn't you?"
He paused. "I will not cripple my offspring by siring them on weakness. You will come around in due time. Now is difficult, but later…. No. I give my heirs better than that. The Light is strong within you, and that tells me you are one of the finest born this generation. Velen chose you, and he is allowed to see all of the young. The shadows love you, so you are able to grow in darkness. You have proven yourself capable of wielding my power. It is all good, Rania'ath. Time heals, and you will leave your discontent behind when there is as much, more, here than what you left. So come to my library, and bide your time usefully."
The library was larger than his throne room, slumbering in hazy red dust. There was a couch set up, with a table, fruit, pastries and wine. "More than ten thousand years of collecting, of study." He waved his hand. "At your disposal, Rania'ath. There are so many who would cheerfully kill to stand here. I give you it freely. Read, just as you did when you were a child, before your parents tried to make you pretty. Learn, so that you may teach and guide our children."
So many books. Ranith slid one from the shelf, and when she looked up, he was gone. She sat with her selection, poured a glass of wine and took a pastry. The pastry was thick with sugar, and cream…the wine was dark and tasted faintly of blood.
"You have called for me, my Prophet." Alexei's greeting was hollow. "The Portal has opened."
"I know." Velen sounded tired, resigned, and Alexei finally raised eyes to regard him. "And your heart aches for your Ranith."
So, that was a subject he was not only willing to broach, but he was going to do it without waiting. Alexei dropped to a knee, bowed his head, but could not speak. "Why?" he finally managed when Velen did not break the silence. "My beloved… My Ranya. I want to be so angry…"
"But all you feel is hurt. Her loss hurts. The fact that we did nothing hurts. You had nothing, and were fine. I gave you something, let it fall, and now you are not fine."
"My way is paved with those I have hurt, Alexei. It looks so different when you are the one I have harmed."
"You are going to tell me to let her go…"
Velen spun, his breath a hiss. "No. Oh, no, Alexei. I am going to ask you for something so much more difficult." He walked up to Alexei, grasping the younger male's shoulders. "I am going to ask you to hold onto her with every fiber of your soul. To love her. To yearn for her. Dream of her. Ache for her, and never let her go."
"What?" That was the last idea that Alexei had expected.
"It will take time before we can move to reclaim Ranith." He released his grip and turned back to the naaru. "Because we have to wait, there is a risk she will fall to him. She is strong, but he has claws into her. He will not harm her, but he will do everything in his power to turn her. Gaerien must be destroyed, Alexei."
Alexei frowned. Finally, someone gave him an idea he understood. Kill the man'ari. When, where, how? "Why has he taken Ranya, if you believe he will not harm her?"
"Gaerien wants an heir." Velen sighed, and Alexei dropped his other knee, and a hand, to the floor beneath him. "He has Ranith. She was called to the priesthood as a child. Power, comprehension, her grasp of the shadows around her, all the things that make Ranith such a fine priest will serve to make her such a fine consort. A mother to his offspring. She's beautiful, all of the care her parents took to raise her…"
"Offspring?" Alexei's head swam like he'd taken an axe to the helm. "He means to breed Ranith?" His mind could not encompass that, it was too horrific to grab onto. Man'ari were giant. Evil. They needed to die because they did things that he simply could not understand. And now, he was supposed to face one of those things he did not want to consider…
"I will not lie to you, Alexei. That has already come to pass. Gaerien's heir exists, carried under his mother's heart." Velen leaned against the railing which separated him from the sixty foot drop, and beyond that, the naaru. "I'm still asking you to be her beloved. It's one of the few things she has left to hold onto. Gaerien has not lied to her. He will not start by telling her you have abandoned her, and she's realized that. He tells her you will get over her. You will carry on. That it was only a scarce handful of months, and you will find another. He tells her their children will fill her life, and you will live your own life. But he cannot tell her you have already done so. She loves you. She wants you. You know that."
"She fell because of me, had I not been so foolish, so headstrong… Had I thought of her…"
"Once she owed her life to him, Ranith was doomed to fall, Alexei. Yes, drawing the power from him when the portal opened hastened it. But it would have happened, long, slow, drawn out, and more difficult to control. He's had less time to subvert her by taking her to him this quickly."
"The consensus is that she carries an eredar. She is still under the protection of the naaru. She still walks in the Light. He is eredar. She is eredar. The Gift is a choice, and the unborn are unable to make that choice… Gaerien's heir will be born as we are, draenei, if we can get Ranith back. The question I have for you, Alexei, is do you still stand with her? Because now I need to know."
Alexei stood, planting his weight on straddled hooves. "I will be Ranith's true beloved. I will stand as her firstborn's father. I will stand in the breach, my Prophet. Whatever it takes."
"I'm sending you back to Draenor." Velen raised a brow in thought. "As Ranith said, Gaerien never lied to her. Shattrath stood, and Ranith's parents survive. I'm sending you to Shattrath, and this will be difficult. I am sending her father a message… that you are to train with his unit. I want you to decide if they are going to be part of the forces I send to reclaim Ranith. As such, he should not know who, what, you are to her. And he will only be told she was lost at the Portal and that if she died, her body was not recovered." He considered his words carefully. "By your lack of it, must I assume your armor did not survive as fully as you did?"
"I ruined it." The words felt good, and that was terrible. Alexei was prudent, resourceful, to admit he had ruined a complete set of vindicator plate in one battle…
"It was necessary to keep them out of the portal. Whatever it took…" Velen shrugged, and Alexei wondered if that included losing Ranith, then knew it did. To hold Medivh's dark portal against the Legion… one priest's life meant little. Armor was replaceable. "It will be replaced." Velen proved that by his statement. "Before you're sent to Shattrath. Remember, it will be your decision if we take her father and his unit."
So many books, and finally, time and an inclination to read them. It was so easy to nest in the couch, eat, drink and devour their pages. There were books from before the man'ari fall, books from Argus, priceless treasures just lying there on the shelf. It was easy to ignore her feet growing long and dished again, and if there was a little extra flesh on her body, well, she was eating for two now. It was easy to forget the opulence she was surrounded by when it did not vary. Of course, she wore the finest he could put her in, was she not Rania'ath, consort of the great one? Did she not carry his only conceived heir in her body? And where else did she belong at night, when the darkness brought cold, but tucked up against his warmth? Why deny herself that? And why deny the joy of his hands upon her?
She sighed, shifting and taking a long sip from her goblet. The liquid in it was bright cobalt blue, thick, with the slightest sheen on it. There was a storm brewing in the nether, and she stood slowly, moving to the open balcony windows to watch it come. The Path was heavy with traffic, but she ignored it, and the irony that she had helped stop the advance on the portal. That was a lifetime ago…
The wind picked up, and she began closing the doors. The books were priceless; the dust here wrecked enough havoc on them. No need to add a dust storm to that.
Shattrath was as beautiful as Alexei remembered, if he could just ignore the elves within its walls. Seen the Light of the naaru… what a trap. Except that the naaru agreed with them. Well, it was not his business. He was here to judge Raynor and the man's unit to see if they were fit and ready to bring Ranya out of the man'ari's clutches. He was pointed into the naaru's chamber, on the Terrace of Light, and he moved there quickly. He would recognize the male he was pointed to even without that aid… He was the source of Ranith's darkened complexion, although he had shining silver hair instead of her gleaming mahogany. He had the same forehead and brow line as his only child, and the same stance. He was thinner than Alexei was expecting, and shorter. Ranith's father should be… more imposing than this. The male who had sired his beloved should dwarf him, but it was very much the other way around. Alexei was the heavy, tall one, rolling in mass and muscle, thick of tail and armed with one of Velen's honor blades, almost as long as this one was tall.
"Vindicator Alexei, correct?" Raynor was uncertain. Alexei had been getting that a lot since leaving Exodar and returning to Shattrath. He was fairly certain that wearing another set of full plate, and the honor blade, pretty much explained it. He was one of Velen's chosen, and that was becoming obvious.
"That is, yes. I have come to tell you I have arrived safely and to ask you when training starts tomorrow."
"An hour after first light. My wife will be certain to get you off in time."
Wife… Ranith's mother. Alexei frowned, failing to see why she would be doing so.
"Ah, Shattrath is swamped with refugees." Raynor nodded, "There is no room for newcomers. My wife and I will be hosting you while you are here."
Alexei sighed. It just got more and more difficult. Come to Shattrath, speak with Ranith's father. Ignore the elves. Live in her childhood home, while not telling her parents he knew her, loved her, that she was in trouble. He rested his palm against his chestpiece, over the crystal drop. It had been his touchstone, the only memento he truly had of Ranith. And he needed to remember her father would probably recognize it on sight. Prudence said he should just remove it and put it away, for now, but he couldn't do it. Hold on to her. Fight for her… "My thanks… I've already stabled my elekk." Ranith's warbuk had remained in Velen's safekeeping, at Exodar.
"Good, good. This way. We'll get you settled down; you must have traveled far…"
Alexei shrugged, he hadn't, but feigning a level of exhaustion would explain his lack of social interaction, at least for tonight. His head hurt with the idea of trying to converse, while keeping track of the subjects he was not supposed to speak on. Diplomacy that didn't come at the end of a sword… no, what he was asked to do here skirted dishonesty, and he didn't like it.
He followed the man to a house, well on the better side of Shattrath, and walked into Ranith's childhood home, one in a row of gray stone buildings. For someone who had grown up out of tents and carts, it was luxury, but smaller than he'd been expecting. Of course, Ranya was an only. Her parents had never had the passel of offspring to need a larger home. "Amalia, the vindicator, Alexei. Alexei, my wife, Amalia."
Ah, the source of Ranith's height and her mahogany hair, her mother was rangy tall, and her horns swept straight up and back. She was as pale a blue as Alexei, with just a tint of aqua green. She lacked her daughter's beauty; she was attractive in a straight forward, wholesome and upfront sort of way. "Good afternoon." He offered, and she smiled.
"My goodness." She chuckled. "You're a healthy one, aren't you?"
"Most people just come out and call me big. The armor does add to it, though." It was easier to wear the armor rather than carrying it, and it was supposed to serve as his identification. A vindicator came in armor. Young ones came in mail. Older ones in plate. Extraordinary ones came in full plate with honor blades…somewhere in the past few months he'd gone from young to old to extraordinary. He just didn't see when. "We are large to stand in the breach." He quoted slowly, and she raised a brow. "Thank you for taking me in during my stay."
"Our pleasure. It keeps the house from getting quiet. I'll show you to your room now, so you can get out of that armor and relax a little before dinner." She eyed him closely, and Alexei felt all too much like a ragamuffin refugee child again, all tentacles and elbows. How could he? This was the best… "New armor?" she asked dubiously, and he understood. What sort of vindicator wore armor so new the strap holes were still neat punches?
"I'm hard on armor. This is my third set in as many months."
Her husband coughed at that… Alexei should have had two, maybe three, sets over his entire life. Three in three months was grotesque consumption. "I started off with my training mail. They had me turn that in for salvage after the assault on Tempest Keep, for plate. That set was shattered when the portal opened on Azeroth. And now this one. They've been using me hard." He waited for questions he might have to think his way out of, but neither asked them.
"Then it is an honor to host you, Alexei. It sounds as if you've had a harsh time of it." She said, leading the way up a set of stairs. "Here. It's not fancy, but it's honest."
It was just that, small without being too tight, a bed, freshly made, and a simple wardrobe, all meticulously clean and straight. She smiled at him, and it was all he could do to keep his mouth shut and smile back. Not going to say it. Not going to bring up Ranya. And avoid it if they do. She left and he removed his harness, carefully placing his armor in the corner. He looked in his pack for clothes, not surprised when he found new. It happened every time he returned to Exodar, new clothes and gear wormed their way into his pack. As one of Velen's chosen, he was supposed to look the part. He threw on the uppermost outfit and moved to the window, gazing out onto Shattrath. So many displaced, so many lost… he could tell those, like him, who had lived this way their entire lives. They found each other, conglomerated, and started working together immediately, trying to find a point of commonality. This refugee camp, that caravan? Did you know Ranal, with one ear? Were you there in the spring? The new ones just drifted until an old hand grabbed one for work and never let go.
It was depressing, and Alexei pushed himself back from the view. He stepped back into the hallway, touching doors as he passed. There. Closest door to the stairs, facing into the back, away from the street. It felt like her, and he carefully unlatched the door. Yes, Ranya's room. It smelled right, and was not as neat as the guest room he was in. The drawers to the bureau and wardrobe hung open; there were clothes, mostly gowns, thrown haphazardly around. She'd packed in a hurry when she'd received Velen's call, and no one had cleaned up after her. He closed the door quietly and descended the stairs onto the main floor. It was filled with the heady smell of roasting basilisk, and he filled his nostrils with the aroma.
Ranith's parents were there, in the dining room, and another… a young male, adolescent and gawky, with a thin tail and thin tentacles. His eyes ate Alexei eagerly, and the awed attention unnerved the young vindicator. "Our adopted son…" Raynor waved a hand at him. "Abir."
Alexei smiled, nodded. They were a stable couple, able to provide. The one child they had borne was adult, out of the house. It was only right they take in at least one other, especially after an assault of the size that had flowed around Shattrath. There were so many orphans here, and it was a responsibility of the people to care for them. "Good evening, Abir." He greeted.
"You are a vindicator." The boy noted, and Alexei sighed. So was Ranith's father, standing just feet away. But Raynor did not look the part, and he did. "I saw you come in the house. You have plate."
"So does Raynor." Alexei was not going down easily. He intended to fight this every step of the way. If Ranith's father was charged with protecting the naaru here, last one on the dais, then he was most certainly equipped in plate. He might not be Velen's chosen, but the naaru had found him acceptable for that task. "It is not the size of the vindicator." He quoted. "It is the size of the vindicator's heart." Alexei had been blessed with size, which added to heart, to soul, aided him. But it would never make up for a lack of that heart, that soul.
"You are one of Velen's chosen." The boy noted, and Raynor raised eyes to study Alexei across the table. That was the truth, undeniable. "You bear his honor blade."
Velen's honor blade, gifted without ceremony, bundled into Alexei's new combat load and handed over by Exodar's armor master. It had come at a cost he would never want to pay again. To have Ranya back, at his side… Velen could take it back. He could have the elekk, and the plate, as well. "So I do."
Ranith's mother appeared with the roast, swimming in gravy and vegetables, and Alexei's mouth watered. It had been so damned long since he'd had good food, food he knew, recognized.
He sat after Raynor and Amalia did, as the elders of the house. He took a slab of the meat when it was passed to him, and it was as wonderful as he was expecting. "So… Alexei." Amalia began, and he girded his resolve. "Where are you from?"
It was a simple question, one that had nothing to do with Ranya. It should be safe to answer it, and answer it truthfully. "Terokhar… Eastern Terokhar. I was raised in the caravans."
The boy's eyes brightened slightly. "So you're an orphan, too?"
"My mother never gave name to my father, and she died when I was a babe. My grandmother took me then. Mostly the caravan guards raised me." So, the boy's answer was yes. It was possible to be orphaned, homeless, raised by others and still become a vindicator, still rise to Velen's chosen.
"Well," Amalia began. "You seem to have done well for yourself, Alexei. Have you a beloved?"
There…one of those questions he needed to watch carefully. He didn't bother to hide his distress at her words, because he was certain he was about to have to use it. "I am not…looking for another." He settled on that deliberately vague answer, his expression stormy. Let them wonder… did she die? Did she leave? It acknowledged that there had been one, acknowledged Ranith's existence and the part she played in his life, while evading the woman's true question. Not a subject I wish to discuss.
She dropped her eyes, reacting to the anguish he radiated, and fell into silence. So many lost, and he was obviously still hurting… There was no further that she, as a stranger, could go with that question. He had successfully, and truthfully, defused it.
"The Prophet was vague about his wishes with you, and my unit." Raynor skillfully changed the subject to something else, something he had a right to know. "He says something about an operational test, which you are to oversee. You make the final determination… But he does not tell me what the final determination is…?"
"I am to study your unit, judge their effectiveness, and report that back to Velen."
"Again, an answer which isn't an answer."
Alexei smiled, "And such are usually the answers you will get from Velen and his chosen. What I will tell you is that Velen is putting together a team, and he has asked me to judge your unit for it."
"We guard A'dal. It is our job, and we've just come off of a long siege. Why would Velen decide to take us from Shattrath?"
Alexei shrugged, that was one of those he couldn't answer. "So…" Amalia breathed, and he heard the rage under her calm voice. "Yet another call from the Prophet, who will not tell us why, where, what. He called our blood daughter like this, and then he got her killed. Had she stayed here…"
Had Ranya stayed here, she never would have run into the man'ari. She would be safe and pure, still. He wouldn't know her, but then, he'd never know what he was missing. "I am sorry to hear of your loss." He murmured. His loss was their loss, but they didn't need to know that, yet.
"So, why don't you go, Alexei… chosen of Velen?"
Her husband shifted uncomfortably, and the boy frowned. He wanted glory stories, not this thinly veiled confrontation. He wanted his adoptive family to view Alexei as awe provoking as he did…because if the adults didn't see it, then maybe it wasn't as fine as it seemed. "I went when Velen called me to Azeroth. I went when Velen sent me to the Portal. And I will go again, this time. My orders are to see if I find this unit fit to go with me. If I say yes, then it is Raynor's decision, once he has all the information, to decide whether or not he goes. But I do not ask any to do anything I would not."
"If Velen asks, then he will go." She sighed. "Just as our daughter did. I am sorry, Alexei. I was so blessed, and now that I have lost that, I am afraid."
Alexei nodded. That made perfect sense to him. Blessed, both parents and the child surviving to adulthood… and now she believed Ranith had perished in the assault on the Portal. She was not untouchable. If Ranith had died, then Raynor could. She could be alone. "I would not ask this if I didn't believe it was worth the risk. And he will know what he is getting into if I decide I want him. He can refuse me." Refuse Alexei, yes. Refuse the needs of his only born… that, Alexei couldn't see happening. A father had more of a duty to a child, the next generation, than to his spouse. The only question here was were they good enough to be part of this?
"You answered Velen's call?" The boy demanded in the silence, as Amalia brooded on Alexei's words.
"Certainly. I was on the assault for Tempest Keep."
"I've heard it was a hard fight." Raynor stated. "A week's hard march to just get there…"
"It was. Only the best made the trip." Alexei gazed at him. He wanted so much to tell them how brave Ranya had been, how she had made the march without complaint. So unbending during the assault on Tempest Keep, such a fine priest even before the man'ari had gifted her. But all he was left with were vague half encouragements… if only the best made the trip, and Ranith had, therefore she was one of the best. He was not good at this. "Velen lead the way. And we took Exodar back from the… elves."
"Was it a glorious battle?" Abir asked.
Alexei frowned. "There is no such a thing. It was successful. I survived, and my companions survived. I would say that made it a fine battle, but glorious, never." He reached across the table and rested his fingers on the youth's hair. "We fight for our own, only. We fight so that they may live, and the price we pay is high. But the price of not fighting is higher." He turned his attention back to the food. It was too good to let go cold. They ate in silence, and when the meal was done, Alexei returned upstairs, standing in the open hallway door that served as a balcony overlook to the street. Night had fallen over the City of Light, but the streets still bustled with people.
"Alexei." Raynor's voice from the shadow of the hallway behind him. His smaller size and complete knowledge of the building had allowed him to move up silently, and like his daughter, the shadows caressed him.
"I wanted to thank you." He moved to the doorway opposite Alexei. "For standing your ground and not losing your temper with my wife. The loss of our child has hit hard. And secondly, for not feeding into Abir's dreams. There is pride in becoming a vindicator, yes…"
"And a great responsibility." Alexei noted, turning his body to face Raynor, but still watching the street.
"You're very young for that realization. Very young to be one of Velen's chosen. I realize the Prophet has asked you to be…discreet. I just have one question I need you to answer, honestly. Do I want to go?"
"Yes. You do."
Alexei cut a damn fine figure the next morning, fully armored, and mounted on the war elekk. Abir had arrived to watch, bringing friends, and Alexei cursed under his breath. The last thing he needed was to become an object of awe…he was just Alexei. And he was busy. He watched Raynor's team train, through narrowed eyes. He'd love to give Ranith's father a place, but getting her back safely took precedence. If the man and his team were not up to it, then he'd leave them behind.
Thankfully, they were good, incredibly strong fall back defenders. Ranith's father was fast, fluid, quick striking with a sword and short blade combat load, using his smaller size and speed to his best advantage. They switched from ranged, casting and missile weapons, to close in denial combat quickly, easily. They would never make the front echelon of this raid… but they'd make a fine back up unit. His mind made up, he dropped his attention from the unit and studied his surroundings. Abir and his handful of juvenile draenei friends, hoping he'd put on a show instead of just sitting on the elekk looking pretty and watching others. And elves, small, brilliantly hued, cutting through the crowds. He narrowed his eyes again, staring at one of their paladins working his way along the path beside the training grounds. Shattrath was filled with draenei young, and the elves had none of their own here. That made them inherently untrustworthy. Perhaps their presence was why Velen had chosen to remain at Exodar, effectively moving the draenei capital without actually saying it was moved. Shattrath may not have fallen, but it hardly qualified as secure.
"Damnable elves." Raynor agreed, his much smaller elekk moving up beside Alexei's. "I don't trust them as far as I can throw them. I know A'dal says…but… Your thoughts on this? You are close to Velen…"
"Velen has stated he will remain with Exodar, on Azeroth. That makes Exodar our capital, Shattrath no longer. And while A'dal has accepted these, there are none at Exodar. It remains secure. I would guess that to mean that Velen trusts them about as much as you or I do. He makes our capital a world away now."
"One way to look at it. What do you think?" He waved at the unit, and Alexei watched them.
"Heavily defensive. But I am happy with what I see… defensive has its uses, even in an offensive maneuver."
"You were at Tempest Keep. Velen's letter told me my daughter stood gallantly there."
Alexei wished his helm was on his head, obscuring his face, rather than hanging from his saddle pommel. "It was a day to be proud of our people." He managed, "All who were called made the march. All who were called stood without fail, against great odds."
"And the fight at the portal? Where she was lost?"
"The portal opened into the midst of the waiting Legion. We needed to hold them on that side, keep them from Azeroth, so our only answer was to charge the portal and make our way back to the Draenor side. We came out surrounded by demons. The fight was… the worst I've ever been in. I went through the portal in a new set of plate, thirty minutes later, it was gone. The larger pieces of it simply shattered."
"And yet, you survived."
Alexei sighed, squinting into the bright blue sky. He was tired of dancing, and he'd already made his mind up. "My beloved stood behind me." He stated, removing the necklace from his neck, and holding it out to Raynor. "Ranith would not let me die."
"Ran…." He went gray, and gripped his pommel. "Ranith. You were with Ranith when she died?"
"I was with Ranith during the march. I was with her at Tempest Keep, and beyond… all of the way to the portal. And no, I was not with Ranya when she died, because she has not died. Velen told me he told you she was lost. And she is."
Raynor reached over the space between the two elekk and closed Alexei's hand over the necklace. "If she gave you that, then she meant you to have it. She is not dead?"
"No. She was taken by one of the man'ari. He has her. Velen can be quite ambiguous when he decides it is necessary, he calls Ranith lost, knowing you'll assume he meant dead. You ask fewer questions, while he prepares. Now, he'll just look at you and say he never told you she was dead. She is lost. We have lost control of her."
"Why are you here?"
"We prepare to reclaim Ranith. She is one of the chosen of Velen, and he will not let her go that easily. She is my beloved, and I will not let her go that easily. You are her father. Will you let her go?"
"Never. If she lives…" His eyes left Alexei and he stared at his own men. "Ranith has known my men since she was small enough to carry her around the barracks on my shoulders. If she lives, we will fight for her. When do we go?"
"Now. The less time he keeps Ranith, the better." That went without saying, and Raynor nodded.
"Man'ari. And you believe she lives, still? I love Ranith dearly, but she is not strong of anything but temper."
Alexei chuckled, resting his palms on his helm. "Amazing, how someone who has known her entire life does not see what those around her do. Ranith lives. My fear is that she has fallen to corruption, but I have no doubts she lives." She might not survive the raid to reclaim her; he read enough into Velen's words to see the Prophet considered Ranith almost as great a threat to the raid as he considered the man'ari to be. It was a safe assumption to say she was. "We go to destroy the man'ari and bring Ranith back, voluntarily or otherwise. Get them ready to move, say your goodbyes, and meet me in the naaru's chamber. I will let them know why when we have arrived in Exodar." He watched the crowd, "I feel safer that way."
"Right. I gather them now." Raynor rode away, towards the unit, and Alexei turned the elekk, heading towards the naaru, and the portal to Exodar. He waited patiently, and Raynor arrived last, giving him a nod to go ahead. Back to Exodar, back to Velen…he rode through, appearing in Exodar and moving off.
"Alexei!" Laretos bounded to catch up with him, and he slowed the elekk. "I'm to tell you the units Velen has for you are waiting on the training field here. You know what's going on? He's pulled us out of Auberdine, telling me to prepare for another pitched raid..?"
"I'll brief on the field."
"As long as someone does." Laretos stated. "You're commanding this?"
There were two strike teams already arrayed on the training field when Alexei arrived, Laretos's and the rifle team who had accompanied him from Westfall to the Portal. They were best and Alexei was already familiar with them, their tactical strengths and their workings. They knew Ranith on sight. They'd served with her. The only ones he did not recognize were four Aldor anchors, none of them young. "Vindicator Alexei." The eldest of them stepped up. "I am Eneas. I mastered Ranith during her training. We are here…to keep her amused during the assault. We will do our utmost to keep from harming her, or Light forbid, killing her."
"What are the chances she still has her priestly abilities?" Ranith could deal out pain that he didn't want to be on the receiving end of, especially since he could not kill her, and wasn't certain he could bring himself to attack her.
"We have spoken to the naaru. It was in contact with her, but she no longer answers. Her chances of wielding the spells we taught her are very low; the Light is beginning to turn in her. We worry the man'ari is replacing what she loses with other spells. We will assume she stands the same as any servant of the Legion, fed by his power. We have four anchors and four mages to keep her tied up. Our best, who understand implicitly that she is not to be harmed…if at all possible. The units are there to take down the man'ari, and his guards. Also, we have been informed that the man'ari holds a great treasure, and we are to mitigate damages on his hold."
A great treasure beyond Ranith. Alexei frowned, and the priest nodded. "He possesses a library which has volumes that predate the man'ari fall, works from Argus itself. When he was eredar, he was a brilliant mind of our people… These works are irreplaceable."
"I understand." He dismounted and moved to the center of the field. Laretos moved up to him, his team arraying behind him. The rifle team did the same, as did Raynor's unit, leaving Alexei and the anchor in the center. "My friends." Alexei began, "I am here to ask for your help. All of you have one thing in common… my beloved, Ranith, one of the chosen of Velen. During the assault on Tempest Keep, she was corrupted by one of the man'ari. We lost her to him when the portal opened…she serves him as his consort now. Velen asks us, I ask you, to go destroy the man'ari and release Ranith from him."
Raynor's team looked between each other, murmuring quietly. Laretos, as usual, was the fast and dark one. "Who's going to protect us from Ranith?" he demanded, a complete lack of levity in his question. "If she serves a man'ari… I don't want to face her. The girl's dangerous, and we have nothing to stand up to her. My orders for a consort of one of the man'ari would be to kill her as quickly as possible. I assume that is out?"
"That is out." Alexei confirmed. "We take in four of her Aldor masters and four mages whose main job it is to keep her busy. Velen has already considered the probability that Ranith is a threat. We still need to destroy the man'ari, and claim his library, even if… we fail to release her."
"So you and Velen have considered the possibility she will die?"
Laretos nodded, slinging his sword over his shoulder. "As long as we've got people who can deal with her…and as long as we're not deluding ourselves, we're in. What intelligence do we have?"
The Aldor master sighed. "Gaerien is not one of the higher ranked of the man'ari in the Legion. His eredar centered thought processes have put him at odds with Archimonde and Kil'jaeden before. He's perfectly happy to kill, maim, destroy, oppress, as long as his targets are not eredar. To him, draenei are off limits… we are the young and foolish who need to be protected until we understand what we have turned our backs on. Now, he's not so set in this that he will not kill us when we breach his hold, especially if he feels he needs to protect his library and his consort. What this does mean is that he has a small household and not a lot of back up. He is the danger, and we can assume that Ranith will back him up. He is not only a threat to her, he considers Velen the reason why we have suffered for ten thousand years. He would love to destroy Velen and help us find our way out of this persecution we have endured at the Prophet's hands. Velen and the priesthood have been watching him for awhile. Quite bluntly, taking Ranith was the final straw, but hardly the only straw. His hold is small. Not heavily guarded… he relies on maintaining a low threat to keep his enemies at a distance."
"Small hold. Lightly guarded." Laretos nodded, pulling a tentacle in contemplation. "With one man'ari in residence… we have a team to handle Ranith, so we drop her as a target the moment we find her. Fine. When do we go?"
"Now." Alexei nodded, and the mages began casting.
Rania'ath was more than half asleep, burrowed into the luxury of the library couch, when the inner hold door shattered into a spray of shrapnel, and the gunfire began. What the…? She rolled off of the couch, landing on her hooves. The man'arg were scattering, three quarters of them running away, and one quarter heading for the broken door. It needed fixing, after all, and that's what they did. "Gaerien!" She bellowed the moment she hit the corridor, already thick with smoke from the door charge, pushing her way through the man'arg as she went. The corridor was a U, the upper right hand part the inner hold door…where the explosion had come from. The library was at the bottom, in the bowl…the door Rania'ath had emerged from. Their bed chamber was up the left hand side of the u, and finally, opposite the inner door, the Throne room. Bullets riddled the wall at the bottom right, still yards from where Rania'ath stood. She flinched, and reflexively tried to bring up her shield.
"No." The naaru's voice, almost forgotten, in the depths of her soul. "Do not call upon our gifts, Song of your Father's heart. We will not grant them to you today."
Son of a…. Rania'ath growled. She should have figured that one out before now, before it became devastatingly necessary. Of all the foolish, short sighted… she spun and bolted for Gaerien's throne room, dodging confused man'arg.
"My lord!" She called, hitting the doors and letting her impetus carry her forward towards his dais. "My lord!"
"My consort." He stood motionless in the center of the room, before his dais, taller than normal in the hold, but not nearly full height. "Velen comes for us." He stated turning and shrinking as he mounted the steps to his throne. "The Prophet of the exiled has finally decided to act. They are in the inner hallway?"
"They're at the inner door. The man'arg…"
"Are not guards. They will die in the hallways, and then they will be useful, as obstacles. We will make our stand here…"
"Velen will not damage the library, my consort. Leave it unsecured, and they will not harm it."
"I've lost my spells…"
His face was tranquil as always, but she felt irritation, either he felt she was whining, or the discovery and its timing annoyed her. "The naaru will not empower you to fight Velen's chosen." He breathed, "That, I should have considered. I should have taught you others…but it is too late." He shut his eyes, "This is the center of my power, my consort. Here, I power you, and you may cast as you did on the portal's dais."
Damned man'arg. The Legion's general servant and repair race was not particularly dangerous, but were as annoying as a crowded street. The man'ari's hold was much smaller than Alexei had been expecting, it was a struggle to keep the units from bogging down in the narrow corridor. When the man'arg died, they increased the clutter, and he stumbled over their bodies. There was a door when the corridor turned; it hung ajar where the others had been tightly closed. He opened it, stepping into Gaerien's library, his priceless treasure. It was brightly lit, but empty, just shelf and shelf of books. Laretos, on his heels, rested a hand on a plush velvet couch, picked up the silver plate on the table next to it. "We disturbed someone here, but they've gone now."
Alexei nodded. No stand in the library… no locked door, either. There, laid out before him… "They refuse to fight here. Best way to protect it?"
"Yes. He must know we'll not harm it if we're not forced to. Come on."
The corridor turned right, and Alexei faced the parallel way to the inbound corridor. The door at the end hung open, and the man'ari was plainly visible within the room beyond. "Man'ari." He hissed, but Laretos had already seen it.
"Go, Alexei. But remember… you don't have a priest on your tail."
He burst into a charge, digging his hooves in to increase his speed. There were no man'arg here, nothing to impede his progress. He perceived the other throne, and enough of his mind worked to identify it… the consort's throne…Ranith. Who was not his target. He refused to look at her; if he did… he might not stop.
The man'ari stood, gestured, and Alexei was thrown back into the hallway, knocking Laretos into the wall. "Alexei." It greeted, and it grated on Alexei's nerves. It shouldn't have that kind of voice. That was the sort of voice that Velen should have, beautiful, yet commanding. "Laretos. What brings the chosen of Velen to me?"
"We come for Ranith!" Laretos bellowed, tossing Alexei's weight off of him and standing. "We come for her." He pointed, and Alexei's eyes rose to her of their own free will. His first staggered thought was that she was beautiful, mind bogglingly beautiful. His second, more coherent thought was indignant. Ranith, his Ranya, did not dress like this. She looked like a demon's consort, the deep plunge of her neckline the perfect foil for the intricate golden necklace she wore. She wore red, the same crimson as the man'ari's skin, embroidered with pearls and gems. Bile rose in his throat… disgust and rage building. His beloved, twisted into this… toy. And she carried its spawn, deep within her body.
"What is the matter, Alexei? Is she not beautiful?"
"She was beautiful before." He spat, and she raised a brow. "Now she looks like a whore." She blanched pale, graying, and he set his weight defiantly. There would be hell to pay for that remark, but she wasn't the only one to drop the truth when a half truth would go down better. He locked his legs, grinding his hooves in, and began casting. Ranith stood, stepping into her own casting stance, eased by the hip high slits in her skirt, and then she was gone, replaced by a sheep. The team to handle her had arrived, and had played their first trick.
The man'ari bellowed in rage, growing, and charging Alexei. He was dwarfed by it, kicked back into the wall. Pain… a great deal of it and no priest on his tail as Laretos had stated. He stood, healing himself, and shaking off the stun as the man'ari charged down Laretos. That one was forewarned, able to shield before it closed with him.
Alexei jumped into attack again. If this damned thing would only die, then he could turn to Ranith. But right now, the plan had to work. The priests and mages would keep her stunned, polymorphed, power drained, too disoriented to attack. With eight of them, they should be up to the task.
"No!" The man'ari bellowed, and Alexei's world shook. "You cannot have her! She is mine! My consort, ask her! She carries my heir. She is mine, not yours, you pathetic excuse for a vindicator! You will not take her because you are not male enough to think you can keep her safe. You are afraid of a woman!"
"Die!" Alexei howled back, wishing he was bigger. It was hard to be imposing when he barely cleared the man'ari's foot. "She has never called you beloved! For I am that." It was a guess, an instinctive and angry rebuttal, but the man'ari's enraged response proved its validity. She never had… it was almost worth the grinding pain when he hit the wall again.
Fragments began to come together in the torrent of Ranith's confusion. Alexei…in pain, and she could not fight her way through these attacks to aid him.
"Yes. Alexei is in pain. He bleeds for you." The naaru's voice, louder, piercing. "If you were at his back, he could prevail. Right now, he cannot heal himself and attack the man'ari. It is time to choose, Ranith. Alexei or Gaerien."
Alexei was her beloved. That was a concrete fact. She set her feet and focused on that through the welter of babble in her head.
"Damn it, she's going to cast! Someone…."
Her attackers spoke draenei. That bothered her on some level, but it didn't stop her, Alexei was injured, badly. He needed her help. She got the cast off, targeted squarely on Alexei. Be whole, my beloved.
"Drop her!" A voice, oddly familiar… Eneas? "The naaru has her now! Take down the man'ari."
"Rania'ath? What are you doing?" Gaerien, angry, and a thin edge of fear wore some of the beauty from his voice.
"Do not listen to him." The naaru directed. "Heal Alexei. If you do not, Gaerien will kill him."
No Alexei. That was an idea she could not face, and got the second cast off unmolested. Alexei bounded back to his feet, his tail hanging at an odd angle, and sent her a wary glance before hopping back into the conflict. There was a smaller male at his side, and Ranith's heart stuttered. Daddy.
She looked around the room, disregarding the complete chaos, and realized she recognized every draenei in it, with the exception of three of the mages. They had all come for her. Her foot rested on the circle marking the edge of Gaerien's center, that which he had given her uncontrolled access to. Alexei. Daddy. Laretos… She smiled, and pulled the power into herself. Gaerien howled in rage and betrayal, knocking draenei aside as he tried to disengage and come after her. "Rania'ath! No! My consort! Why?"
The only way he was ever going to go away was exactly as the priest in Darkshire had stated… he must die. It was the only way she would ever be free. The only way Alexei, her father, would survive this. "I am not your consort!" She hissed in rage, and let go of the spell she held.
He snarled, snatching the power back. He raised his hand towards her, and began a spell, then snarled again and turned his attention back to the assault force. "I will deal with you later, Rania'ath." He promised, "You will not enjoy it. But I still will not harm you. But Alexei… your father… that is entirely different. I don't need them."
No. She cast again, raining pain down upon him. Die. Die, damn it, die.
He was screaming in pain, losing his ability to focus on a target, when he turned on her again. "You will not come out of this unscathed, Rania'ath. If I die here, at the hands of your blood and love, you will pay. I still will not kill you. But…" He threw an open hand in her direction and there was a sudden white hot pain lancing through her head. She dropped to her knees, joining her screams with his, the bellows of the assault force, and the report of rifles. "You will forever remember your betrayal."
So much pain. So, so much pain. It had to stop. It had to lessen… Let me pass out. Let me pass out. I don't want to be awake anymore. There was laughter in her head, grating and bitter, that even the naaru's attempts did not send away. The naaru could not curb the pain, either, and Ranith vomited between her knees. I want to die.
"You…will…not…die." The floor shook as he fell before her. "You still carry my child. Your child. Our child." He was gone, and with his absence came the darkness that Ranith prayed for.
"Velen?" Alexei demanded, surging to his feet as the Prophet appeared. Ranith's father stood behind him, silent, still stunned from the fight. Alexei had not worried about the books, about cleanup; he'd just snatched the limp Ranith up and fled through the portal, Raynor on his heels. His own wounds remained untended, and he brushed the healers aside. No, not now.
"Ranith is alive." Velen sighed, wiping the last traces of her blood off on a cloth. "I had somewhat hoped she would not betray him. But she sensed your injuries and opened back up to the naaru. She used the power he gave her against him."
"How is she?" Alexei tried again, and Velen nodded. Alexei already understood what had happened; he didn't need it told to him.
"He hit her hard. His intent was to maim her, injure her in a way that would not threaten the child she carried, and he has succeeded. She has been blinded, Alexei."
No. He bowed his head, suddenly unsteady on his feet. "But she will live." He ground out.
"Yes. Other than this, and a few…um… additional tentacles, she seems in good health. Actually she's rather heavy compared to normal. Too many pastries. Now, will you let them tend you? You're falling on your feet."
Alexei nodded, finally allowing himself to perceive the pain he still carried. Ranith had kept him alive. She'd let the small things go, and it was Alexei's experience that the small things often hurt the most. His tail throbbed in time to his heartbeat, like a toothache left alone, and he was too tired to fix it.
He woke an eternity later, in a bedroom bathed in daylight, tucked on his belly in a comfortable, wide bed. He stumbled to his feet, ignoring the remnant of pain from his shattered tail. Ranith slept in a bed next to his, and he moved to her side. Her forehead was cool to his touch, and he sighed. She was alive. Free. He ignored the bandage over her eyes… it didn't matter. When he rested his hand over her heart, he could feel it pulse like moths' wings under his fingertips. She stirred under his touch, and he wished he was not alone with her when she woke.
She rested her hand on his. "Alexei. My beloved." She breathed, and then raised the other hand's fingertips to the bandage. "He didn't."
"He did." There needed to be someone else here. Someone who could make this sound better than any words Alexei could find. "Velen says… they cannot… it will not be healed."
"I am blind."
He looked vainly around, but there was no reprieve. "Yes, little one. You are blind."
"Where am I?"
"Exodar." He breathed, afraid to touch her, and afraid to not touch her. "Ranya… My beloved."
"Am I still?" She asked, sitting up and he glanced at the floor quickly. The clothing she had worn at the man'ari's side had been conjured; it had vanished at his death. Alexei had given that no consideration when he'd snatched her up and bolted with her. No one had bothered to garb her since.
"Ranya, you are not wearing anything." He murmured, blushing blue. She hissed in answer, but he could see her out of the corner of his eye, gather up the covers and bunch them under her armpits. "Yes, Ranya, you are still my beloved." If anything, more than ever. She could have avoided this by remaining faithful to the man'ari until his death. The eight would have kept her stunned and out of the fight, never her fault. But no, she'd come back to herself, and started healing him.
"You don't know." She spat bitterly, and he frowned.
"That you are with his child?" She nodded, dropping her chin. That was part of it, but not all… blood soaked the bandage and trailed down her cheek. "That you were in his bed?"
"Then you do know."
"I know." He found a cloth, wiped it away, and she sniffled. "I knew it when I swore again to Velen that you were my beloved. When I swore to him that I would stand with you, that I would be your firstborn's father. Ranya, marry me. I was a great fool for not…" More blood, another sniffle. "Ranya, are you crying?"
"Of course, you keep wiping away the tears. How could you not know that?"
He glanced at the white cloth, stained blue, and shrugged. She didn't need to know it all right now, and perhaps there were things she might never need to know. "Ranya. Marry me. Let me stand in this breach with you."
"You don't want…"
He sat beside her, placing his hand on her back and pulling her forward to rest her forehead on his shoulder. "I am a great fool." He repeated. "I ran from you, from that, because I want them so much they terrify me. I want them so much that losing them… losing you…"
"I am crippled now. He… I am useless now. He wanted me to remember… forever… but… He expects me to care for a child I will never see?" He gathered her into his arms, ignoring her nudity, and murmured wordless noises.
"Good morning, Ranith." The Prophet's voice and now Alexei knew him well enough to identify that tone. He expected trouble, or if not trouble, then pain. She did not answer, crying into Alexei's shoulder. Velen only nodded when Alexei shifted to show him what she cried out. "Ranith."
"I will never see it!" She wailed, and he stood still. "I am worthless, useless! I will never see it!"
"Ranith. You are not worthless, or useless. You are blind. You are correct; you will never see this child, or any of the others you will have. But you are not the first to lose their sight… you should know that as well as I. The priesthood has had several, and they continued to serve and be valuable, one of your masters… And how did they do this?"
Ranith pushed her weight back from Alexei, pensive. He pushed the sheet back up, over her shoulders, and Velen chuckled. "Perhaps, Alexei, you should look in the wardrobe and see if you can't find something for her." He suggested, and Alexei jumped to his feet, relieved with that inherent logic.
"He wore a blindfold that supposedly gave him the ability to perceive his surroundings."
Velen nodded, watching Alexei delve in the wardrobe, until he came up with a nightgown. "Did he seem blind, Ranith? Worthless? Useless? Did he even seem truly inconvenienced?"
"No. But I know he still didn't see. Not…"
"Not truly, no. I do not deny that. You are blind. You will be such until the day you die. But your life is not over…" He took the gown from Alexei and threw it at Ranith. "Put that on, you're making Alexei quite nervous. He keeps staring at the floor." She did, and Alexei sat back on the foot of the bed. "I will not stand by and let you wallow in self pity, Ranith. Get up. Get dressed. Carry on. Marry this fool. Here…" He pressed a length of shining black cloth into her hands. "Your father is waiting outside. I haven't told him yet, but I will before I let him in. Are you well enough?"
"I…am." She ran the blindfold through her fingers, then touched the bandage. "Help me get this off…"
He cut the bandage off, and Alexei steeled his gut. Blinded could mean so many things… She looked perfectly normal, her eyes closed, and Velen neatly tied the fold. "There. The effects start little by little; to give you time to accustom yourself to it. You shouldn't feel anything yet. I'll let him in now."
He left, and Raynor came in a moment later. He looked relieved, hopeful, until he saw Ranith, and his face fell. "Ranya." He breathed, and she tilted her head at him. "My poor baby… What do the priests say?"
Alexei swallowed nausea and stared at the waves in the blankets he sat on. Poor baby? He had handled Velen's matter of fact discourse so much easier than he was handling this. "It is permanent." He said when Ranith paused. "She is blind."
The man stared at him for a long, angered moment, and Alexei shrugged. Ranith deserved the truth. From Velen. From Alexei. From her father. "The way to Shattrath is open, my daughter." Raynor continued. "Come home. Let us help you… take care of you…"
She nodded, and Alexei pulled his bulk from the bed and stepped out into the corridor. Shattrath? With a man who called her poor baby… Velen waited, and he raised eyes to his Prophet. "He has asked Ranith to return to Shattrath." Velen stated, and Alexei nodded. "And she has agreed." Another nod. "You have asked her to marry you…" The Prophet shook his head, "And she has not given you an answer. Let her go to Shattrath, Alexei."
Alexei sighed, bowing his head. Everything in him told him this was a mistake, but he was young, and the Prophet was not. He had led their people through much greater problems than this one. "Ranith doesn't need coddling." Ranith was his beloved, his responsibility. He would question the Prophet for her…
"No, she doesn't. She's strong." Velen chuckled. "She will return to Exodar before the week is out, angry and ready to fight. As you say, Ranith doesn't need coddling."
Shattrath sounded busy, smelled busy… but the short passage through the portal had disoriented Ranith. She clung to her father's elbow, dizzy and uncertain.
"Welcome back to Shattrath, Ranith, anchor of the people." A'dal greeted, and that allowed her to pinpoint its location… so that was the middle of the chamber. "It is normal that you experience some vertigo upon a passage through a portal now. You will learn to handle it better in time."
Her father saluted, then took her hand again. "This way, Ranya. There are a couple of things we need to discuss before we get home. Your mother believes you are dead. It will be shock enough to find you are alive. A second to realize you are…. Blind. That is probably enough shock for now… She knows Alexei, but she doesn't know he is your beloved. And the child you carry…no. We should let her calm down about you before we let her know about you and Alexei, then we can let her know about the child."
Ranith flared her nostrils. "You mean to make her believe that Alexei is the father." It was all about to be swept away, as if it had never happened… Alexei, who had never been anything but decent and upstanding, was about to be blamed for Ranith's badly timed pregnancy. He was about to be downgraded to untrustworthy, and once that happened, he'd never be good enough to marry Ranith.
"I think that's the safest idea."
"Alexei has never touched me. He's never been anything but good to me. A perfect vindicator and you want to lay blame on him? Of all the dishonorable, low ideas… Never. I will not play along with that." Alexei had come close to death to bring her back. She was not going to allow him to be used like this. "I am going to marry Alexei. He is going to be your son."
"You are…correct, Ranith. I just want to protect you. You've been through too much as it is."
"Turning Mother against Alexei will put me through hell later on." Her head was returning to normal, and as it did, the memory of Shattrath returned, its streets, its steps, so much clearer than any memory she'd ever had. It was like the home she'd grown up in, only Shattrath sized. She knew every bump, every curve… she didn't need her father's grip, and tried to slide her fingers from his grasp, but he held on too tightly.
He chuckled at that. "Alexei, eh? Forgive me; he's not the sort I expected you to bring home…"
Ranith inclined her head, down towards the street. Like that, she could know every cobble beneath her. "How so?" She tried the opposite, looking up… and the vertigo returned. Bad idea. She returned to regarding the cobbles, comforted in that.
Of course Alexei was large. When he stood behind her, looming, she felt… safe. If she had him standing between her and whatever shouldn't come close to her, she was safe. He was massive, unbending, a bulwark… "I noticed."
"He doesn't seem…" Raynor paused, and she turned her head to him. Yes, he was there, not as clearly as the sudden pinpoint memory of Shattrath's layout, but still perceptible. "Very bright, Ranya. We expected you to find someone a little more…intellectual."
The perverse side of her chose that moment to return and she bit back her first answer. Gaerien had been extremely intellectual; maybe they would have preferred him… "You think Alexei is stupid?"
"Not stupid, Ranya. Just not… he's a doer, not a thinker. When faced with a man'ari, he charges. I watched him; he never gave it a second thought. That sort of male dies young, Ranya. One of these days he'll run into something that will crush him."
Alexei had survived the assault on Tempest Keep, and the opening of the Portal. He had survived a head on attack against a man'ari, all because he had her standing behind him, exactly as he was supposed to. Alexei was not a fool, he just had an instinctual grasp of when he should stop thinking and start doing. And yes, he needed someone there to keep him up when that happened, he needed her. As Velen had said, they either came to Azeroth together, or stayed on Draenor together, but they would stay together. "Alexei is my beloved. He is one of Velen's chosen. He is not a fool, and he's quite bright." He thought a lot, planned combat quickly, but when he engaged, he went into a thoughtless, brutal flurry. "No, he's not an anchor. Nor a mage." Both had been high on her mother's list of possible males for a heavy dose of matchmaking. Ranith should marry one of her brothers in the priesthood… Never a vindicator. They died too quickly, an amusing idea considering her own father was one.
"He's from a caravan."
"We are few, and all of the Light. Each one of us who survives is a gift." She replied, working her fingers from his grasp. "Alexei is a vindicator, the same as my father, and his father before him." Of course, that would happen to be the grandfather crushed into shards on the Path of Glory. She didn't need to see to know Raynor's expression at that. "I come from a long line of service. I do not understand why I am supposed to be the one to fail." She began walking, cautiously, towards home.
"Not…fail." He sighed, falling into step beside her. "We never wanted you to fail, Ranya. We tried so hard, for so long, and you were the only child we were given. Becoming one of Velen's chosen… see where it led you. Serve our people, yes… just don't…"
Don't get hurt. Don't get dirty. Don't get maimed, or killed. She shook her head. It was too damned late for all of those but one. "I am one of Velen's chosen. And I will marry Alexei." It was all so easy.
She turned at the fork in the road, moving without error to the steps leading up. Those required a moment to absorb them before she stepped up and opened the door into the hallway. She heard her mother's voice, laughing, and the voice of a stranger, young and male.
"Amalia." Her father called from immediately behind her, and Ranith heard her mother come into the hallway in front of her. Once more, she had the sense that someone was there, almost visible, or tangible…
"Ranith?" Her mother breathed, dubiously, and Ranith nodded.
"What…?" She closed distance, and Ranith felt her fingertips on her brows, just on the upper edge of the blindfold. "Ranya? What? You…"
"I'm blind." The words were there, defiant. "Yes."
"Oh, no." It was not a mourning, as Alexei had given her. It was a sharp rejection, a denial. Ranith wasn't allowed to be blind. "Come. We'll go to the Aldor rise. The priesthood…" She grasped Ranith's hand, and turned her back into her father. Ranith sighed, and went along with it. If Velen had given up, then she was aware that all the resources of her people had been expended. But she needed to go to the rise anyway, let them know she was here, and speak to the blind master. If anyone could help, he could…
Again, led through the streets of Shattrath, like a naughty child. It was annoying, until the elevator ride up to the priesthood sanctum kicked up a wave of vertigo almost as bad as the portal passage. Then she clung unabashedly to her mother's arm.
"Eneas!" Her mother called across the wide open space, and Ranith sighed. Of course, it would have to be him… She felt him coming, and turned in his direction.
"Amalia." He greeted. "Ranith. Good to see you looking so well."
Ranith smiled, sensing a debacle in the making. She was not supposed to bring up the questionable subjects, but she wondered if anyone had bothered to tell Eneas that. He'd been there, in Gaerien's throne room, part of the group there to keep her confused and out of the fight. "My master."
"Looking so well?" Amalia hissed. "She doesn't look well."
"She'll lose the weight." He replied, and Ranith almost giggled. Her mother was screaming over her blindness, and Eneas mildly mentioned the weight gain. What would she do if she saw the tentacles that had sprouted, exactly as the dreams warned, from the back of her thighs, hanging like a fringe?
"We know. I was there." Those words did have a tinge of regret. One of his sisters, his student, maimed in front of him, and he had not been able to heal her out of it. Nothing could have, that was the dying spell of one of the great man'ari…
"Now what?" Amalia demanded. "What does the priesthood intend to do about this?"
He sighed, and Ranith understood the resignation in his voice. "May I see, Ranith?" He asked, and she bridled. She had no idea what she hid under the blindfold… Alexei had remained silent when Velen had cut the bandages away. Of course, Alexei would have remained stolidly silent no matter what. Half her face could be gone, and he'd never let it slip. Eneas would be the same. Her mother…no.
"Yes." She finally agreed, and he removed the blindfold. He took her chin in his hand, and lifted her face into the light.
"Hmm." He cupped his hand over his eyes, and she felt him examine the wound. "Velen says…?"
"It is permanent."
"I must agree. What is it you want from me, Amalia? Why have you come?"
"This cannot be healed? She cannot be made whole again?" Ranith's mother was aghast, and Eneas rested his open hand over Ranith's heart.
"She is whole again." He said, the words meant for Ranith. "She will never see again, but she is whole. Light be praised. What do you worry about, Amalia? Ranith is one of ours, and nothing changes that. She will always have a place with us, even if she were so maimed that she required diligent care, which she does not." He pressed a kiss on her dapples. "Ranith is one of Velen's chosen. He will call her back to his service. Ranith is a beautiful young one even without the ability to see… if she did not already have a beloved, she could gain one with ease. But she has one, and he would stand with her even if she were disfigured… which she most certainly is not. Velen still values her. Her beloved still does. You are her mother… I suggest you do so as well. How is Alexei, Ranith? He looked a little worse for the wear the last time I saw him…"
"He shattered his tail. It is bad… It may heal wrong. But other than that…he is Alexei. Indomitable."
He laughed. "And do you have a problem with how we have treated you, Ranith?" He asked.
"No. You did not blind me."
"No, we didn't. If we could, we would restore your sight. The man'ari's spell was too strong, too final." His fingers were gentle as he replaced the blindfold. "You betrayed him…"
Some perception returned, the perfect recollection back. "I know I betrayed him." Yes, Eneas would be the one to tell. "He was killing Alexei." It was such a simple statement. "And it was worth it, Eneas. I'd do it again, even knowing…" Alexei's life was worth it. To have him stand behind her… "Fate. As you told me once, everything comes at a cost. And I've paid it."
He rested his hand on her shoulder. "Are you returning to the priesthood here?" He asked softly, and she shook her head.
"I will return to Alexei, to Velen's side... to Exodar. My service as one of Velen's chosen has only begun. And somebody's got to keep Alexei standing. One of these days he's going to beat on something too big for him… whatever that might be. The naaru have forgiven my transgressions, I am still an anchor. My spells returned when I betrayed Gaerien. I just need a little time to learn how to handle…" She touched the blindfold. "I know this cannot be remedied, Eneas. I accept that. I blame no one. Gaerien is dead, I am not. Alexei is not. When the dust settles, we prevailed."
"Enjoy today…" he breathed.
"For tomorrow we fight." Ranith completed it for him. It was what they did, fight.
"Good day, my sister." She sensed his bow to her, to Amalia. "Amalia." Her mother had the common sense to remain silent until Ranith knew he was well away.
"Alexei? The vindicator, Velen's chosen, that Alexei? You are the beloved he would not replace?" Amalia demanded, leaning in close. "When he was under our roof, I asked him if he had a beloved. He said that he was not looking for another… He felt like he was despairing, mourning. Over you?"
"Over me. Yes. I am Alexei's beloved. Alexei, Velen's chosen." Ranith waved her hand at Alexei's approximate height. "Big one. Quiet." She smiled. "The thickest, longest black hair you've ever seen. Blue as a spring sky."
She expected a torrent of questions, of complaints. Amalia remained silent for a long moment before she began laughing, a true, deep belly laugh. She laughed until she sputtered, smacking Ranith on the back. "Finally." She managed. "Finally, I get to see my daughter love sick. Finally, a male that you don't look at with that vaguely inquiring and oh, so not interested look. It is about damned time. And, oh, yes, my daughter. I see what you see… um…"
"You see what I see in Alexei." Ranith repeated it firmly. She was not in the mood for everyone around her to dance around as common a word as see. It just made her feel all the more blind.
"Yes. Ranya, what happened? You left on Velen's call. Then we receive a letter from him, personally, stating you had been lost during the fight when the Portal opened on Azeroth. We took that to mean you'd…died…especially when we began to hear of the battles… Tempest Keep and the Portal."
Ranith considered the question, before she began, starting with meeting Alexei in the marshes. She left nothing out, blurring over none of it. To let it go, to grasp it completely, required facing it. To acquit herself of blame, to elevate Alexei… but to still accept that the child she carried was not his by blood… that its sire was not even considered one of her people anymore. Her mother grew increasingly silent, still, listening as Ranith admitted how deeply she had fallen to Gaerien, how the only truth to drag her out of that was Alexei's pain, and her father's presence.
"Velen is wise." Her mother finally admitted, when she had no more words. "Now what, my daughter? Your telling lets me know that Alexei is well aware of everything he should know. And he knows you have lost your sight…"
"He says he wishes to marry me." And that truth warmed the sun in the sky. "That he will stand as my firstborn's father, in spite of its paternity."
"That is a high demand to place on anyone, Ranya, even to a heart as large as your beloved seems to have. You are still early, it would be easy to end this…let your firstborn be your beloved's born child…"
The weight of denial from multiple sources hit Ranith like a charging bull elekk, and she went to her knees, holding her hands over her ears. "Nononono." She breathed, shaking her head. The naaru voices retreated, pulling back their presence in her mind. Only Velen's unwavering attention remained, she could feel him.
"Ranith." His voice was calm again, soothing. "I was hoping this would not come up. But it has. Before you consider this, please, come speak to me. Hear me out."
"Ranya… Are you alright? Are you sick? Do you need a priest?"
"No… I'm fine." She staggered to her feet again. "The naaru…find that idea objectionable. As does Velen."
"Velen and the naaru want you to bear the offspring of a man'ari? Conceived under duress?" Amalia did not bother to bleed the disbelief from her voice. Children were a gift to the draenei, a confirmation that the Light still shone upon them. To sully that went against their very core values, every one was supposed to be loved, yearned for as Amalia had yearned for Ranith.
If she broadened her stance, Ranith could stand without trembling. "It is still mine." She stated, and it felt like a cloud had obscured the sun above her. "And when it came to be, I wanted it. I wanted Gaerien… I went to him. I cannot change my mind about that now."
"So you ask that Alexei, that your father and I, accept this as our own?"
"Alexei has already pledged that to me, to Velen, to the naaru. As for you, and my father…. This is your own. I am yours, and it is mine. Whether or not you admit it or not is up to you." It didn't matter, with Alexei and Velen behind her, Ranith didn't need her parents' blessing. "I know this is difficult. But Gaerien was one of us, once, and for all of his faults, he loved us until the end. Maybe…" She tilted her head to face the sky, absorbing its vastness. "Maybe his child will carry that forward. I will not condemn his child, mine, before I know. I am better than that."
Her mother was silent for a long moment. "I see." She finally said, and Ranith yearned to see, to understand the look on her face. All she had was her voice, and that was not enough. Two very small words…
"Nothing, Ranya. I was just wondering when you'd grown up so. My baby is gone. You have become one of our people, standing in the breach. One of Velen's chosen. All of the things I was afraid to tell you have become so small now… When I realized you were alive, and hurt, I feared to tell you we have adopted another. Now… that's so inconsequential. And I don't think it will hurt you now."
Ranith turned the statement over in her mind, feeling, for just a second, the hurt her mother feared. She was theirs. She didn't need, didn't want, a sibling. It was gone in a heartbeat, chased away. She only nodded. "No. It doesn't." Let them raise another.
"Good. So you've settled on a beloved…" Amalia sighed, and Ranith heard the mourning in her voice that she'd been expecting after the whole sordid story. "That's sad, Ranya. You will never see your babies. And you will never see the wedding set your father made for you, but it is there for you, and Alexei." She snorted in amusement. "A vindicator. Like I didn't see that one coming. Like I didn't warn him. I never expected you to bring home one quite as deep in the breach as that one is, but I did see you choosing one. A nice peacekeeper, from Shattrath…not one of Velen's shields. Never do anything with half your heart, do you, my daughter?"
"No." What was the point in that? They were born to live, and make a difference.
Heartened by Velen's assurance that Ranith would not stay in Shattrath, babied by her parents, that she would return to him, Alexei began to arrange his household. She needed a place to live. She needed a place to bear and keep her children. Shattrath was out of the question… he refused to live there. He'd almost died liberating Exodar. She had also. He'd almost died in the crash, as had she. Velen was staying here, and they served the Prophet. This was their home, secured by their blood, and where they needed to be. Shattrath was too chaotic, too open… even if they were to stay on Draenor, he would not choose there. Azeroth was not the perfection he'd been expecting, but compared to Draenor, it was a better place to settle his family on.
"You believe she'll marry you?"
Alexei frowned at Laretos's words. Velen had never said that. He'd said Ranith would return, to Alexei…so that he could uphold his vows. "Even if she does not, I will stand with her." He moved through the apartment in awe. He was worthy of this? Worthy of any of this? "You don't understand."
The older male laughed, shaking his head. "I understand better than you give me credit for, Alexei. Watching this from the outside is clearer than seeing it from the inside, I'd wager. You run into this incredibly beautiful one, who needs you right from the beginning." He locked himself into combat stance, puffing his chest out impressively. "The Prophet himself says she is the one for you. Instant validation." He dropped back to normal. "She falls to the man'ari on your watch, through no real fault of hers… or yours. I gave her the order to break the position. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine. Velen keeps the two of you together anyway. During stress and need, she became your beloved. She gives up her soul to save you. You readily went after her, and almost died doing so. She saves you again." He shrugged. "Only a heartless one would not fall to this, Alexei, and you are hardly heartless. I merely asked if you thought she would marry you. If you say yes, I need to come up with a gift."
"Ranya will marry me." The words were sweet, full. Once stated, they became real. She would return. She would marry him, and live here on Exodar. He frowned, and Laretos gazed back.
"Alexei, my friend?" He asked, and Alexei sighed.
"So much, in so short a time. It seems like forever, Laretos, honestly. Was there a time before this?"
The older one chuckled, clapping him on the back. "Yes, and there will be a time when you look back and wonder where this time went. Live in the moment. The past has gone, and the future is unwritten."
Alexei nodded, accepting the words. He was facing Laretos, who was facing the door behind him. He felt, more than heard, it open and close, and Laretos raised a brow. "Good afternoon, Ranith." He greeted, and Alexei spun. She was back, well before the week that Velen had given her. She was brilliantly dressed, bright blue overdress, emerald under gown, both banded with saffron, and he smiled. The man'ari's shadow robes were long gone… Ranith stood forward in the Light.
"Afternoon, Laretos." She greeted, moving into the room. She did not precisely hesitate, but her progress was cautious. She tilted her head in Alexei's direction, paused. "And good afternoon, my beloved."
"Beloved." He replied, and she grinned.
"I thought that was you." She said, nodding her head. "Things aren't…quite the same."
"I'll leave the pair of you alone." Laretos bowed out of the room, and she turned her head to track him. She was barely off, a little behind, but if Alexei wasn't watching so closely, he would have never noticed. When he was gone, she nodded to herself.
"My beloved." She sighed, moving closer. "Before I left for Shattrath, you asked me a question."
He nodded, then frowned. "Yes." He said. This was going to require him to become more talkative, nodding no longer worked… "I asked you to marry me."
She took another few steps, her hooves loud in the nervous silence. When she reached him, she dropped to a knee, offering up an ornately carved wooden box. "My answer." She stated, and he took the box with shaking fingers. Few in the caravans had the resources to answer like this; he'd really only heard of it from those who had taught him. But Ranith's father was a jeweler, and she his coveted only blooded… He opened the box, catching his breath. Her wedding set, her father's masterwork.
"So I am told." Her words were sad, and he shadowed her stance to hold her close. There were no words to soften this, and he didn't try to find any. "Yes, Alexei." She said after a long pause. "I will marry you. I will be yours."
"You make me…" Again, words failed Alexei. Happy…no, that was not enough. Relieved was a closer word, but it lacked the romance a young woman should have now. "Beyond happy." He settled on finally. He was a warrior… she had to understand that by now. If he wanted fancy words, she had chosen the wrong male. "Your parents have been told?" That was a probability, if she had the wedding set with her, but not necessary a guarantee. He stared at the bands, still awed. The main metal was adamantite, gleaming silver, a flowing design of terocones and khorium inlaid flowers, a pale violet close in color to the Exodar crystals. The flower stamens were inlaid gold, and the terocone needles were copper. He picked up the male's tail band, the largest piece, and gazed at it silently. So beautiful…
"Yes. I told my mother, and you told my father."
He nodded, then coughed in annoyance. She tilted her head. "I feel it when you nod, Alexei. I almost…see…things. Almost. Where is this?"
"When Velen insisted you would return, I asked for a home for us." It was one thing to decide he didn't want to live in Shattrath, but it might not be so easy an idea for Ranith. She'd been raised there. It was home. "Here, on Exodar. This is what they gave me."
"Exodar." She breathed, standing to walk the length of the main room.
"My little one, I do not desire to live at Shattrath. I want to live here." She paused two steps before she reached the wall, and cautiously tip toed until her outstretched hand touched it. So secured, she turned back to him.
"Shattrath is my home." She said, and he dropped his chin.
"Ranya. Are we not Velen's chosen? Do we not serve him?"
"We are. We do." She agreed, and he nodded sharply.
"Velen has decided to make his capital here, on Exodar. He meant this to be more than a flight to reinforce Azeroth's side of the Portal. We took Exodar for more than that, Ranya. It would have been less costly for us had we just waited on Draenor for the Portal to open, and then moved on it. Azeroth is his new capital, and we stand with him. Exodar is more secure than Shattrath; we have more control of it… I feel safer here. I'd feel safer to have you here, and the baby… Azeroth is not the heaven I imagined, but it is still a better place for our child than Draenor. There is darkness, but the Legion does not rule here."
"Our child." She marveled. "You said…"
"If we do this, then we do this the right way. I promised… Ranith. We need to stay here. For ourselves. For Velen. For our people, and our unborn. Exodar, Azeroth, should be our home." Maybe it was just time to let the orcs have their home world, to call Draenor, Shattrath, a loss. He shook his head at the idea. No. They had not fallen that far, yet. The forces of Azeroth chose to fight the Legion on Draenor's sundered lands. The longer they did that, the more vital Shattrath became. But it came at a cost… a war capital was just that, filled with forces, and a tactical target.
"I understand." She acknowledged, then shrugged. "Shattrath has changed, anyway. It is not the home I grew up in. Even my parent's house has changed. I understand that they need to adopt. That it is the right thing for them to do. I am an adult. I no longer live under their roof. But that boy is no sibling of mine, not my family. Am I wrong to feel that way, Alexei?"
"You cannot force acceptance, Ranya." He moved closer, stroked a tendril of her hair. "Your parents deserve respect, and you just claimed to respect their decision. You cannot force attachment, though. And yes, Shattrath has changed, and not for the better. It is becoming a tactical capital, the center of the assault. Exodar is difficult to reach. Secluded. As secure as we'll ever manage. Our fall back." He stroked her cheek, and she rested her face against his hand.
"Obviously, if Velen calls this his capital, then we will stay. And yes, it is safer." She stepped closer, resting against his bulk. "When did you want to do this? The wedding?"
Alexei closed his eyes. "How far along are you?" He finally asked, and she sighed.
He nodded sharply. "Very soon. As soon as we can." It was so early, if they did it now, most would not realize. Those who would already knew. And there was no reason to wait.
"Fine. I will speak to Velen." She extricated herself from his grip.
"We are his chosen." She chuckled. "We have the right to ask him to do it."
"Ranith." Velen stated, and she bowed her head slightly. "You have questions." He breathed, and she nodded. It was time for him to answer them. This had gone beyond duty, as ugly as it might be, it should have been her decision to have the baby or not. He should have no say. "I see your son." He stated. "It would be… more than a crime to deny him life. Ranith, you carry a champion of our people. As you've already stated, even at his worst, Gaerien loved us. His son will have that, untainted by the man'ari curse. He will be bathed in the Light as you are right now. You turned away from the shadow within you when you came back to us of your own free will, when you chose Alexei, and spurned Gaerien. Your son will be this way, as well. He will be glorious, Ranith, and you will never regret this. Alexei will never regret the honor of raising this one. The child will see Alexei as his rightful father, even when knows otherwise. I knew Gaerien before we were offered the curse, Ranith… he was so brilliant, such a paragon of the eredar. But he was so inquisitive, he needed to know everything, and it caught up with him." Velen sighed. "It is not easy to see, Ranith. To make decisions I know will hurt those around me, those who trust me. When you were born, I knew I would hurt you. I would place you where you must be to fulfill your destiny. Alexei. Gaerien. This child. Forgive me for what I have done to you…the only thing I can tell you is that your son will be enough to make it worthwhile. But I still betrayed you. I betrayed Alexei… and you come to give me the honor of marrying the pair of you. If that is what you desire, then of course I will."
"Alexei wants it done quickly."
"No reason to wait." Velen stated. "No reason to hurry. It is all the same, Ranith. If he wants it now, for whatever reason, then we give it to him now."
"You are so beautiful, Ranya." Her mother fussed, and Ranith grimaced. She wanted to see. This knowing only went so far. She knew exactly where her mother was. What direction she faced. But Ranith could not see herself, in her own wedding gown. She didn't even know what color it was, and that was enough to make her cry. But she couldn't cry. They had finally broken down and told her what happened when she did that…tears were fine, tears of blood were disturbing. "What color is it, Mama?" She asked, and Amalia froze.
"Blue, Ranya. Aldor blue, bound with white."
"Do you see Alexei?" Rage vied with distress, and Ranith should feel neither today. It was her wedding day. She married Alexei, and it was all good.
"Yes, my daughter. I see him. And he is beyond handsome… He wears blue as well, and white. His hair is loose, very black. He looks a little nervous, but mostly ready. He is a fine one, be proud of him."
How would it be possible to not be proud of Alexei? "I am blessed, Mama." Again, tears threatened, but she managed to staunch them by tilting her head back.
Amalia chuckled, hugging her. "And he is blessed, my daughter. Never, ever let him forget that. Are you ready?"
Alexei stood nervously… he knew Laretos, who stood immediately behind him, but Ranith's father, her adoptive brother, were not much more than strangers. He disliked the new clothes…but his armor had been vetoed as appropriate garb. This was too fine, shining blue tunic, and tight white breeches. Even his hooves had been buffed…
"Your beloved." Laretos murmured, and he raised his eyes. Ranya… his heart clenched. She was so beautiful… trembling dreaming glories in her hair, her gown luxurious, Aldor blue, a few shades lighter than his tunic. He took her hand when her mother passed her off to him, pressing it to his heart.
"Ranya… I…. Words fail me." As usual.
"There is no need for them." She answered, turning her head towards Velen standing beside Alexei, below the shining presence of the naaru. "Let us do this."
Velen, Prophet of the exiled of the eredar, glanced behind him. On his right side stood his shield, a massive male draenei with a glorious fall of black hair, Alexei. That one wore the full plate of his station, brilliant in the light, his hands locked on the quillons of his blade, point down. His helm was off, and the light played across the adamantite bands ornamenting his tentacles, the same band, wider, binding his tail over the broken bend. The wedding set of his beloved.
Ranith stood on Velen's left, her fingers wrapped around her stave. Her hair was a mahogany fall, and the glint of her own wedding bands became visible ringing the tentacles behind her ears when she turned her sightless face in Velen's direction. She wore golden yellow, a beacon on the field, the same color as sunlight, loose over her great belly. She was stately, confident, an advisor to the Prophet himself.
"Yes, my Prophet." Her voice was calm, collected. "We are ready to face the storm."