Part 11: Beyond the darkness

Ariciel sat with her back against a post on the docks of Booty Bay and watched the ship come in. She’d found the inn and could find it back, which left her just about enough time for a sprint to the docks, and to get her breath back. Mareva came off the boat as soon as the gangplank came down. Ariciel wiggled her fingers at her.

“What took you so long?”

“Convincing the captain that he did not need to turn round to fish you up,” said Mareva. “If only I had thought of saying first that you were a Druid.”

“Oh?”

Mareva’s teeth shone at her. “As the Navigator put it, ‘Loas bugger me if I be fishing for a damn-damn Druid. Dey be takin’ care of their own damn skins.’ And then he got back to the helm.”

“Everybody loves us, really.” Ariciel got to her feet. “Wanna get a drink first or fly off for Nethergarde?”

“I remember the drink here. Let us find the gryphons.”

They flew to the main Human foothold in the area, a grim fortress called Nethergarde Keep. There were Dwarves there, and Humans. Their job was to guard the Dark Portal, to see if anything Demonic came out, and if it did, to hammer it back to the foul places from whence it came. A serious, mostly boring, and occasionally terrifying job that seemed to have cost them all of their sense of humour. Visitors were tolerated more than welcomed, and they preferred their guests leaving rather than coming. Mareva and Ariciel stayed only long enough to fill their water bottles from the well, and buy some trail rations from the quartermaster. As they walked to the gates, Mareva noticed a strange sort of platform, with a sturdy construction above it, from which there hung a rope. She pointed at it.

“Do you know what that is?”

Ariciel looked. “Ah. Yes. You put someone on the platform with a rope around his neck, and then you pull the lever and they drop down.”

Mareva pulled up her upper lip, showing her fangs. “Ah. To cure their back problems.”

“Yes.”

“Permanently,” said Mareva.

“You got the idea. Feel like staying here a while?”

“Not particularly.”

They set off down the road that would take them to the Portal. The Blasted Lands lived up to their name: Sandy, barren, hot. This was caused no doubt by the magics that had willed the Portal into existence, and started the wars of Humans against Orcs. They stuck to the road, and saw no other creatures, except for a few basilisks, and some of the immensely tough boars that somehow still managed to survive here.

“Do Draenei go in for executions?”

“No. I do not say that none ever happened, but if they do, they do it out of sight. It is not in our nature to do so.”

“Gives me the creeps,” said Ariciel. “Interalia told me what goes on in the stockades in Stormwind. I wish she hadn’t.”

“I can understand revenge,” said Mareva. “Killing those who have harmed you, or yours. Blood for blood. It is not justice, but it feels like it at the time. I have been angry. I have taken revenge. And then the brain regained control, and I felt… disgusted.”

Ariciel stared, said nothing for a few dozen steps.

“I’ve been there. It feels so good at the time. But it’s not good for you.”

Mareva looked over her shoulder, back at Nethergarde. “This is different. It is not a fight. They have a person in their power, who is no longer a threat. And they have decided that that person should die. It is not a killing from the liver, it is a killing from the brain. And that frightens me. That they have to build a special place for efficiency frightens me more.”

“Perhaps efficiency is not the only reason. Perhaps they want people to see that, if they don’t keep their base instincts in check, they will die.”

“I think you are right. And still, the urge to kill one’s fellow being is the basest instinct of all, and it is the brain doing it. The liver cannot be good or evil. It has no will. It has no morals. That is what the brain is there for, to temper, to moderate, to keep back the hand that kills. This is the brain giving in, even committing evil deeds. Do the Night-elves execute their fellow Elves?”

Ariciel sighed. “Not that I know of. Back in ancient history, when Kalimdor was still the only continent, the High-borne made a bad mistake. Thousands upon thousands died as a result. You can bet that there were voices then to kill the lot of them. In the end, they were just sent away. Not even all of them did go. I worked all my life as a house servant in one of the places where they lived. They kept their silence, stayed away. I think there were other places as well. They were forbidden from having children, though. With this new found ‘mortality’, that’s as much as a death sentence. There’s very few of them left in Kalimdor.”

There wasn’t far to go. After just a few hour’s steady running, they reached the camp where both Horde and Alliance soldiers were on guard. A large stone structure stood in a little valley. Two stone figures stood at its side, hooded, swords resting on the ground in front of them. At the top of the portal was the head of a snake, larger than life, terribly life-like. Inside the gateway, there was a dark, swirling mass, with small lights floating through it like distant stars.

“So this is it, then?” Ariciel looked at Mareva, who was standing next to her, pulling up the straps to her pack, staff leaning against her shoulder.

“Yes. A few small steps to take a giant leap through space.”

“Your home.”

Mareva shook her head. “Not any more. The place where I grew up no longer exists. Nagrand does, though.”

Mareva started to walk up the stairs, to the portal. Ariciel followed her.

“What are we going to find on the other side?”

“Daemons. Interesting wildlife. Humans and orcs fighting the remains of the Burning Legion. A barren wasteland like this, no doubt glowing with residual magics.” Mareva grinned. “If you grow another head, do not worry. It will pass.”

“Oo! Can I have a tail? I’d love a tail.”

Mareva laughed, “How will I keep my hands away from you if you have a cute tail?”

“Any reason you should?”

They grinned at each other. Mareva held out her hand. Ariciel took it. Together, they stepped through the Portal.


Ellandriel sat at the helm of the small boat. Teacher was on the jib. It really wasn’t too difficult when you got the hang of it. The boat bounced merrily over the small waves, heeling over starboard. The wind was in her back, the salt spray of the sea was in her hair. Her arm had healed beautifully, thanks to the Netherweave bandage. She held the helm steady by bracing it against her knee and took a big gulp of tea from the bottle. Sailing like this wasn’t too bad. As they sailed along the coast, the scenery had changed from the green shadows of Stranglethorn Vale to the mountains and barren sands of the Blasted Lands. They had sailed for two days, and pulled in to land for three nights. The boat had a cabin about twice the size of Ellandriel’s bed back in Eldre’thalas, and two bunks. There was a store of salted meat, ship’s biscuits and bottles of rum. This had apparently been the pirates’ staple diet. “Which goes a long way towards explaining their inexcusable behaviour, Apprentice.” Ellandriel had tipped most of the rum overboard to make room for tea which, even cold, was much better. Teacher tied off the jib sheet, and pulled out the map, comparing it with the mountains they could see.

“If I’m not mistaken, Thero’shan, we are about fifty miles away from this bend in the coast. When the coast turns East, we’ll need to find a place to hide the boat. It would be a great shame to lose her.”

Ellandriel gave a pull on the main sheet, and the mainsail tightened. The boat heeled a bit more over starboard, and sped up.

“It’s not really our boat.”

“Nonsense. She is legitimate spoils of war. Chances are those pirates got her by slitting the previous owners’ throats.”

“Not much different from us, then,” said Ellandriel.

“Don’t be absurd. You didn’t ask them to assault you. If you hadn’t defended yourself as well as you did…” Teacher considered. “Well, I would have killed them. But I would have killed them while they were busy with you. Much better this way.”

Ellandriel stared ahead of the boat, searching her feelings. She had been stupid just to walk up to a bunch of pirates. The world was probably a brighter place without them in it. Still. There was blood on her hands now. None of her fellow students had ever killed anyone. The first time was always the most difficult. Ellandriel was sure she’d read that somewhere. But this had not been difficult. Disgusting. Frightening. She briefly let go of the helm to rub her arm. Painful. But not difficult. ‘Them or me’ had not even been a question. After Teacher had bandaged her wounded arm, she hadn’t even looked at the dead Humans. And despite how they got it, she liked this boat. She liked sailing in it. Her. Boats are girls. They would find her a nice sheltered spot in an out-of-the-way place, and lift her out of the water. Maybe, sometime, she would come back this way and she could sail her again.

“It’s getting dark,” said Teacher. “But I think we are so close now that it’s no use pulling in for the night. I’ll take over the helm, and you can get some sleep.”

Ellandriel shook her head. “I am fine. I would like to sail a bit further. Why don’t you get some sleep? When I get tired, I’ll wake you.”

Teacher looked at Ellandriel for a few moments, then nodded.

“Very well. Don’t lose sight of the shore.”

“I won’t.”


Nurse Josie Birch was working on the Blood-elf, cutting away the bandage on her leg. She dropped the spent linen into the bucket, and examined the leg with a worried look on her face. Stetson watched her work. What else was there to look at? Nurse Birch pulled on a pair of gloves, opened a jar of ointment and spoke a few words in Thalassian to the Blood-elf. Then, she started to rub the ointment onto the woman’s leg. There was a sudden acid smell and the Blood-elf screwed her eyes shut. Her teeth showed, and she made small noises of pain. Nurse Birch took more ointment out of the jar, and the Blood-elf noticed Stetson looking at her. She slowly turned her face up to the ceiling, tight-lipped, shaking, and kept quiet. Only her breath gave away what she must be feeling.

Stetson turned his eyes away. When he had come in on the gryphon, he could still walk. Now, he couldn’t even sit up. He was getting worse, not better, with the passing days. Matron Olisarra came by often, to see how he was doing, to take more samples of his blood, of the decaying tissue on his legs. Urine samples. Nurse Angelique Butler now had to help him relieve himself into a bottle. With some difficulty, Stetson took a deep breath. His wounds were cursed. Druids could cure poisons or curses, Shaman could cure diseases. But he had something new, something that the healing spells had not seen before. Until a cure was found, he would deteriorate. If it took too long, he would die. Nurse Birch’ healing spells were good, but in the end, they only postponed the inevitable. Stetson closed his eyes. On the bedside table lay a piece of parchment and a pen. Nurse Birch had promised to post the letter for him. So far, he had written two words, nothing more. In the bed next to him, he could hear the Blood-elf’s breath slowly returning to normal. He looked round at the creature. She was staring at the ceiling. She turned her head towards him, and spoke a few words. Stetson looked away without replying.

Stetson didn’t like Blood-elves. They had sided with the Daemon-bothering Orcs against the Draenei of Shattrath. The blood of thousands of men, women, and children was on their delicate, well-manicured hands. They were vermin. Why the Naaru had accepted them back into Shattrath was a mystery to him. Perhaps the Naaru were incapable of feeling hatred, or of bearing grudges. Stetson was perfectly capable. He thought again of Mareva, and what to say to her. Would this letter bring his final words to her? Stetson’s eyes narrowed. Not if he could help it.

Stetson woke up in the middle of the night, to the sound of his own coughing. Someone had a hand under his head, and put a cup to his lips. Stetson drank greedily, then looked up.

“Thank you,” he said, then stared. He looked up into the green glow of the Blood-elf’s eyes. She put the cup on the side table, then put a finger to her lips.

“Ssh. Populus hic volunt quiescere.”

Stetson watched the woman limp back to bed. She looked back at him.

Salubritas, Draenei. Post hoc…”

She drew a finger across her throat, then turned round and pulled up the blanket.

“Well, thank you anyway,” said Stetson.

Stetson lay back in his bed. The letter to Mareva lay on the bedside table. He had written it in the few minutes of blessed absence of pain following Nurse Josie Birch’s healing spells, in addition to the Gift of the Naaru.

X

Mareva,

X

I have found my brother, Garz’houn. He died defending me from a
large superior power of Scourge fighters. I am recovering from
the after-effects in a hospital named “First to your aid” in the
flying city of Dalaran. I will try to join you as soon as I can.

X

Yours, S’dezo’houn.

He had just had the time to re-read it, once. Then, the Scourge curses caught up with him and he sank back into the pillows of his bed. Matron Olisarra came by, took his blood, temperature, some samples of his skin. Stetson didn’t mind. The skin on his legs was mostly numb now. he was losing the feeling in his stomach. He had stopped asking Matron Olisarra how she was doing, sparing her the effort of coming up with a convincing lie. Stetson was not recovering. He was dying. Would his last words to Mareva be a lie? Come to think of that, who exactly was he lying to? Himself? Morgan lay beside him, on the floor at the foot end of the bed. Occasionally, he stretched, and yawned. He didn’t seem to be affected by the diseases that plagued Stetson at all. Angelique Butler fed him, and gave him bowls of water. Stetson had considered dismissing him, but the thought of being alone in this dismal place frightened him. Miss Butler did not seem to mind.

Next to him, the Blood-elf was not having a better time than he had. Infection had spread all over her leg, and it needed daily cleaning with aggressive acids to keep the bacteria at bay. She bore her suffering with as much stoicism as she could, but having diluted sulphuric acid rubbed over your leg is painful. When he looked at her during her treatment, her face showed determination not to show weakness in the face of the enemy. Why they had not simply amputated the leg, he could not say. He glanced at the creature. Too late now. The infection would probably spread over her whole body, and then she would die. And still, the healers had hope. Hope that they might find a cure in time. Failing that, hope that from studying their doomed patients, they might learn enough to be able to cure others in the future. Garz’houn had been right. Hope hurt. He closed his eyes, slept. While he was asleep, Nurse Birch picked up the letter, sadly shook her head, then put it in the post box.

Stetson opened his eyes. Looking down on him was the second most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was dressed in the elaborately decorated robes of an Anchorite. In the days before he met Mareva, he would have looked at her for maybe a few minutes, then chased some of the more down-to-earth, less… less holy women. Wasn’t he lucky that Mareva was more beautiful than this one, and lacked all restraint?

“How are you doing, Hunter?”

Stetson thought of several lewd jokes to make as a reward for such a stupid question. He didn’t bother. What was the point?

“I am dying. Apart from that, I am good.”

The Anchorite smiled. “My name is Yazmina. I am here on a supplies run. Matron Olisarra asked me to look at you. May I?”

“Yes,” said Stetson.

Anchorite Yazmina pulled away the blanket. Stetson looked down. He was struck by how normal he looked. He couldn’t move his legs anymore, and the black colour over his skin had mostly disappeared. They had been normal bruises. Yazmina put her hand on his shoulder, then moved it slowly down towards his stomach.

“Tell me when you no longer feel my hand.”

Stetson waited. Thankfully, the numbness started somewhere above his middle. Yazmina looked into his eyes.

“There,” said Stetson. Yazmina’s hand rested a few inches away from what Draenei refer to as the ‘frontal tail’.

“Are you sure?” asked Yazmina, in Draenei. “Please do not fear. I am a healer. You need not be ashamed.”

“I piss in a bottle held for me by the nice lady behind the counter,” said Stetson, in the same language. “If she is quick enough. I have no shame left. Where your hand is, that is where the numbness starts.”

Yazmina traced with her fingers the limits of Stetson’s paralysis.

“Where did it start?”

Stetson pointed. “There. One of the Troll casters hit me with some kind of dark energy bolt.”

“Did it hurt?”

“That is hard to say. I was already hurt at the time.”

Yazmina nodded her head.

“I will try a few spells now. None of them will have a lasting effect, but tell me if it starts to hurt.” She looked over her shoulder. “May I have a needle please?”

Stetson winced as Yazmina stuck the needle in his stomach. He didn’t feel a thing, not even the sensation of the skin being tugged. Yazmina held her hand over Stetson’s stomach, and let the magic flow. Different colours of Light danced over Stetson’s skin: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

“Ow!”

Yazmina smiled, pulled the needle out, directed a little healing magic to the wound and ran her fingers over Stetson’s stomach.

“Do you feel that?”

Stetson’s heart leapt inside his chest. For one fleeting moment, he loved Anchorite Yazmina with all his heart.

“Yes.”

The feeling of Yazmina’s fingers on his stomach faded away again, until she might as well have been stroking her own skin.

“No.”

“Do not worry. We know now what we are dealing with.” Yazmina turned to Matron Olisarra. “We have a curse here that attacks the anthropomorphic memory itself. That is why ordinary countercurses do not work.”

“I tested for that,” said Olisarra. “The test came out negative for auto-anthropomorphic deficiencies.”

“It would. This is a harmonic in the Draenei anthropomorphic field that does not normally come into play. Whoever designed that curse must have a particular dislike for us.”

“So what is the next step?” said Olisarra.

Anchorite Yazmina stood up. “We design a new draiocht to take into account the extra harmonics. We tell all of our healers about it.” Yazmina’s eyes narrowed, and a strange smile was on her face. “And then, we kill this curse dead.”

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