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Reflections of a Weary Soul
#1
((I've been stagnating with my writing lately, and I needed a change to jump start the creative juices, so to speak. I figured I would repost this to get me going, which I had up before the forum/server restart, and then continue from here. I need some practice, and I enjoy making Anaiya's life miserable. Should be fun. Hopefully I worked out all the kinks from transferring formats twice, but we'll see.))


Six Months Prior to Present Events

Maybe it really was just her, Anaiya mused, watching as the hem of Aschelia's robes swirled around the corner out of the tavern's door. She allowed her eyes to wander, scanning the patrons of the Salty Sailor and automatically assessing them.
Bartender, goblin, head barely above the bar, little to no threat.
Gnome, male, goggles and attire likely indicate tinker, variable threat. Observe.
Night elf, female, motley gear and black leather possibly indicative of mercenary. Worn sword on hip, knife hilt protruding from boot. Consistent angry looks appear hostile. Observe.

Multiple goblins, bruisers, affiliated with the Cartel. Avoid conflict.
Anaiya's experienced eye took all of this and more in from her position in the corner, where her back was inaccessible and all entrances were visible. She had already marked the doors on her first visit, and no new ones had sprung up since then.
The elf surreptitiously turned her head upwards, scanning the upper floor and that walkway up in the rafters that led outside. She'd used that very location to eavesdrop several times, and she would really hate to have it used against her.
Her visual sweep done, Anaiya turned her gaze to her untouched glass of wine, absently thumbing the intricate silver ring on her right hand.
Sightseeing.
Her hand clenched around the stem of the glass.
The fool woman (Naphilia, wasn't it?) wanted to go sightseeing in Northrend? Sure, there were very beautiful places there, but it was completely marred by the, oh, massed Scourge army on the brink of annihilating all life. Nothing serious.
Sightseeing.
That's what people down here thought was happening in the frozen wastes?
True, talking with a fellow sin'dorei was a welcome change, but the woman seemed-new entry, troll, male, robes and voodoo mask indicative of magic user, prepare for spell interrupts-so ignorant of many things and, like far too many blood elves recently, had thrown many traditions to the winds. Naphilia lived in this...place, so that she could help people? What about her own people, the ones that were still fighting and dying in Northrend, and in the Ghostlands, the borders of their very home?
Anaiya bristled, remembering the look Naphilia had given her, the slight frown, eyebrows contracting, lips forming words 'I don't see how you can judge someone based on race'.
Naphilia should go sightseeing near Lake Wintergrasp. Perhaps then she'd realize she was almost right; race didn't matter, but affiliation did. It was Horde against Alliance, with the Argent Crusade and Ebon Blade trying to play mediator. It was all mind-numbingly stupid and foolish, in her opinion, to be wasting resources and lives fighting each other. Not to say she had any love for the Alliance, far from it; there was simply the much greater threat of the Scourge to deal with first. But, thankfully, she wasn't in charge of anyone but herself. Her skills as a scout, infiltrator, and marksman were well respected and utilized, though she was shuffled from commander to commander faster than she would've liked, but she was glad to be of use. Not being an enlisted soldier, the tough, dangerous, tricky, or (once or twice) outright suicidal jobs were what she was there for.
There was a slight creak from the doorway above, barely audible over the bustle of the tavern, and Anaiya's sharp eyes flicked up, searching for the source of the disturbance.
Nothing.
Just creaking floorboards, or something else?
Anaiya watched the upper doorway, her body frozen but for her hands, which rotated slowly, palms inward, to check the knives hidden up her sleeves. Starting anything in here would be foolish, with the bruisers and all, but she refused to be caught unprepared.
For three minutes she waited, motionless, only relaxing a hair when-human, draenei, night elf, two females and a male, minimal to no combat gear. Likely noncombatants, but group increases threat exponentially-a group of Alliance entered, laughing with each other and ascending to the upper levels.
Anaiya leaned back, her left hand toying with the glass's stem again, and her right caressing the elongated dragonscale hilt of the beautiful, jeweled sword that rested against the table.
Naphilia and Aschelia thought she was paranoid.
Anaiya's grip tightened, the wine swirling sluggishly in the glass.
Paranoid, huh. Their subtle vocal ques and slightly furrowed brows told Anaiya that they felt this was a trait to be pitied, or was simply unnecessary.
Anaiya's mouth wanted to snort in derision, but her disciplined mind quashed the impulse immediately. Drawing unnecessary attention to oneself was not the way to go if one wanted to continue breathing.
So yes, she was paranoid. She was so paranoid that she went to high alert at the sound of a creaky floorboard in a run-down goblin tavern. She was so paranoid that she always wore her armor, and carried a minimum of three concealed blades at all times. She was so paranoid that she slept in short, one or two hour bursts, and never when there was a possible hostile within one kilometer.
She was so paranoid that she was still alive.
The glass groaned softly in her grip. Phantom pain ghosted through her, and Anaiya grimaced, allowing herself to place a hand on the long, bandaged gash across her side, covered by her cuirass. She stared off at nothing, feeling the comforting grip of her sword.
Yes, paranoia had its uses. She remembered one such time, when being edgy and jumpy had saved her life.

Something wasn't quite right.
Anaiya had just yesterday scouted this area, noting all the details the assault team from
Orgrim's Hammer would need to make their attack. Locations of strategic importance, the commander's rise, most efficient avenues of attack, troop deployment, and both guard patrol routes and rotations. No easy task, but it was everything an attacking force needed.
Sky-Reaver Korm Blackscar had approved, giving her a nod and instructing her to guide a small team in to wreak havoc. And so she had, bringing them to the concealed rear entrance tunnel.
But something was not quite right.
“I'm telling you,” Anaiya growled, fast losing patience,
“do not go in there yet. Something's wrong. Give me a minute.”
“What is wrong?” Gorkun Ironskull snarled back, “We're on a strict timetable here. Give me something solid or get out of my way!”
Anaiya looked back to the dark tunnel.
She couldn't place it. There was not a stone out of-
that rock wasn't there before it was half a meter left that lump wasn't there before the depression in the snow is filled how did that happen why is all that snow displaced what is that smell it's death something is WRONG-
With a derisive snort, Ironskull shouldered roughly past her, motioning the rest of his troops forward. “Come on, we'll do this ourselves. The knife-ear can go back to Sky-Reaver Blackscar and tell him how she got cold feet.”
The attack squad moved up, the Forsaken rogues Kelidan and Belara taking the lead.
Anaiya remained, frozen with indecision. She couldn't just leave, but she had a gut feeling that something bad was going to happen, and she had learned to trust her instincts implicitly.

“Felfire,” she hissed, unslinging her bow and stepping forward. Her danger sense was screaming at her to run, but she had gathered the intel for this operation; these soldiers were as much her responsibility as they were Ironskull's.
“Ironskull,” she barked, as quietly as she could while still retaining a sharp, commanding edge.
The orc spun back to face her, and as he did the toe of his boot caught on the displaced rock Anaiya had noticed before, kicking it aside, and all hell broke loose.
Something erupted in a burst of snow beneath Belara, sending her flying high into the air. The Forsaken cartwheeled helplessly, her long dagger leaving her grip in a gleaming twirl. Before she had even started her downward descent, a flurry of deadly talons eviscerated her as the crypt fiend emerged from its burrow, its eight eyes gleaming malevolently. It spun on Kelidan, hissing, before it reared back with a screech of pain as Anaiya's arrow whistled into one of its eyes.
By the time Belara's shattered remains had landed in the cold snow, Anaiya knew they had been well and truly trapped.
Scourge poured from now-revealed holes in the ground, savage skeletons and vicious vargul falling into the assault team with the terrible, hungering wrath only the Scourge could bring to bear.
When the vargul emerged beside her an instant later, slashing furiously with its blood-encrusted halbred, Anaiya was already moving. A knife left her hand in a blur of motion, striking the walking corpse high in the chest as she dove sideways, stowing her bow. Not nearly enough to drop the thing, but it gave her precious seconds. Her longblade flashed out, neatly severing the thing's head and granting it a second, permanent, death.
The team was lost. Anaiya saw and heard Nargrn die, overwhelmed by a rush of ghouls that bore him to the ground, already tearing at his flesh. His terrible screams echoed above the sounds of battle. She saw Agra's head snap back, eyes already glazed and sightless as one of the crypt fiend's razor claws speared her through the forehead. She saw Kelidan backed into a corner, his twin swords working desperately to keep his three opponents at bay. He fell a moment later, his defenses disrupted by a burst of shadowy energy that melted one of his arms. The skeletons' blades plunged into the breach.
Anaiya whirled, eyes searching as another member fell, stricken by the same dark power.
Overseer Jhaeqon cackled manically, the warlock flinging shadow bolts left and right as he dropped his veil of illusion. It seemed he had deduced their game, and turned it against them.
But, in locating him, Anaiya had distracted herself for a moment, and paid for it.
Her uncanny danger sense was twisting her away even as the filthy blade bit deep into her side, cutting clear through her armor and leaving a long, bloody gash. Pain flooded her senses, eliciting a sharp gasp, but the elf suppressed it, shoving the distracting feeling away.
There would be time to whine later.
She turned the follow-up strike aside with a flick of her sword, knocking the vargul's blade high before spinning inside its guard and running it through, its undead flesh offering no resistance to her enchanted longblade.
The assault had failed, in the worst way possible. Somehow, the Scourge knew they had been coming. Had she been detected?
Impossible. She had been too careful.
But there was no time for that.
An orcish warcry jerked her gaze up. Ironskull was charging Jhaeqon, the hilt of his broken sword in hand, howling something she couldn't quite make out.
The Scourge swarmed him an instant later, and he vanished under the tide of the dead.
Anaiya stood alone.
The team was dead, or would soon be wishing they were. There was no use in dying alongside them.
With a snarl of frustration, Anaiya turned and fled.
She twisted under an incoming blow, her return slash severing the bony forearm. The elf grabbed the nub of bone and tugged savagely, spinning the crippled skeleton into another attack meant for her.
The way was clear. She took the opportunity.
Anaiya sprinted for it, dashing along across the top of the snow as speedily as her slender elven legs could carry her.
Surprisingly fast, for those unfamiliar with elvenkind.
Something made her hurl herself into a sideways roll, flying over the ridge of an icy hill as a final bolt of dark energy howled past her.
She was eternally grateful for her keen danger sense.
Anaiya regained her feet almost immediately, continuing her sprint until she was far enough away to find an acceptable hiding spot.
Only then did she become aware of the burning pain in her side, and her breath hissed out sharply from between clenched teeth. It was a moment's work to slap a quick dressing on the injury.
It was painful, yes, but it could wait.
She would not allow herself to feel it, not yet.
She would not allow herself to think about her dead companions, left to the Scourge.
Some would call her a coward for fleeing. Anaiya didn't know and didn't care if they were right.
She still had a job to do, responsibilities to keep.
And she couldn't do either if she were dead.
Blackscar might be tempted to kill her, or at the very least rage furiously at her for this failure, if he felt she were to blame for the ambush.
But he wouldn't raise a hand against her.
There were not nearly enough like her in the war effort to even consider killing her.
The thought brought her no solace as she stared into the beautiful surface of her magical blade.
The war effort, as it was. A pathetic sham of an effort, slowly dying as it flailed with indecision between attacking the Alliance or the Scourge. With their strength divided, the Lich King was already regaining lost ground.
The Horde, and the Alliance, were losing.
But there was no time to think of such things. She had a responsibility to fulfill. She had to report back and relay what had transpired here.
Anaiya sheathed her blade briskly, her wound already forgotten.
She had no time for such distractions.
Maybe now, her instincts would be taken seriously.
Paranoia, was it?


The glass stem snapped with a loud crack as Anaiya's grip tightened. The upper section of the glass struck the table and shattered, spilling wine everywhere.
A pity it only took the deaths of an entire group of soldiers for her paranoia to be taken seriously.
She snatched her longblade up and slammed it into its sheath with more force than strictly necessary, standing abruptly from her seat. She tossed a gold coin to the table and headed for the door.
This place, these people, so safe and secure in their ignorance, disgusted her. She wondered how they would react when the Scourge swept across this land.
It would, if the Horde and the Alliance failed.
Damn Koltira and his orders for her to 'take a break'. There was work to be done. She was needed on the front. This place was a waste of valuable time.
Anaiya shoved the door open, her cloak billowing behind her as she strode out into the darkening sky as rain started to fall.
She doubted she would ever return.
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#2
((If only I could churn out the stuff I -needed- to write as quickly as I do this.))

Many Meetings

Five months prior to present events


The Stormshade Clan.

Anaiya looked down at their motley assortment of members from her position high on the hill, a thoughtful expression on her face.

Quite an interesting group, to be sure.

She hadn't heard of them before this occasion, which wasn't any real surprise; she was hardly well-informed about the various orc clans. It was odd, though; they were not exclusively orc, or even Old Horde, as it were. Vainar, in fact, was the one who introduced her to them, and he had neither fur nor abnormally-colored skin. He was quite charming, actually, very intelligent and well-mannered, with a manageable touch of arrogance in his bearing. With only a little prodding on his part, she had agreed to go with him back to Fray Island, which seemed to be their base of operations.

Lok'magrosh, the clan's chieftain, surprised her in the fact that he was dead. Not really what she was expecting. It startled her, though, that she couldn't have deciphered that instantly by smell. He did not reek of death, as some of his Knight brethren did; his scent was sharp and cold, not offensive, but not altogether pleasant either. He was a hard man, to the point and brooking no nonsense. He disciplined his clan as he felt was right, and showed no favoritism.

Anaiya liked him.

He, however, seemed rather skeptical of her. He had accepted her pledge and taken her into his clan (which also surprised her, because that certainly was not what she was expecting when coming down here), but something in his tone when he wished her luck put her hackles up.

Of course, he didn't trust her, that much was obvious. She didn't trust him, either. There was a difference between liking someone and trusting them.

Maybe it was the gratuitous introduction she had received, courtesy of Vainar, rather than doing the speech herself. Oh well.

They were planning an expedition to Northrend, it seemed, to assist against the Lich King. With the way her last trip had ended, she was a little leery of such a journey, but she agreed to inspect them anyway.

Time would tell. Until it did, she'd just have to prove herself valuable. Being on the lowest rung of the clan didn't appeal to her, and if she was going to stay among them, however long or short a time, she should at least get to know some of these people.

Before an hour was up, Anaiya discovered that she'd agreed to get their members ready for the horrors awaiting them, and to guide them in the frozen heart of Icecrown. She wasn't quite sure what drove her to make such a pledge, though. It was a lot of responsibility, a lot of time, and a lot of effort, none of which she was sure she wanted to invest with these…people.

Then she remembered the atrocious sparring session she had walked in on, and it all made sense. They'd be slaughtered, if they could even find Icecrown. Nothing she said had persuaded them from their course, and she couldn't just leave them. It'd be like leaving a child unattended with a knife. You just didn't do it. She would have to straighten them up. It wouldn't be pretty.

Anaiya smiled softly. It reminded her of the first day of Ranger training, so many years ago. More or less, anyway. She'd been far worse, but…

This was impossible, she thought dazedly, her mind reeling, barely able to understand what was going on.

Her arms were on fire, her legs were like jelly, and it felt like someone dropped a boulder on her chest. Anaiya panted raggedly, desperately trying to suck in mouthfuls of life-giving air. Her entire body shook like a leaf in a gale, and she pushed herself upright through sheer willpower and little else.

How was
anyone supposed to be able to do this? It was insane.

“Get
up, you useless runts!”

Ranger Tethis was working himself into a froth, raging at his new recruits as they struggled to complete these starting exercises. A ridiculous number of pushups, sit-ups, and laps around the retreat, and he was screaming like they had done something horribly wrong. Which they apparently had, in not being able to complete every single assignment
on the first day.

This was not what she had expected to find, when she signed up for training. Her father had encouraged her towards this, saying it'd be good for her, all the while smiling cryptically.

She had thought he meant it would be a good workout, or something. He was a ranger himself; he knew exactly what she was getting into.

She would be sure to get him back.

“Stand up straight, you pathetic louts! I'm not done with you yet. Anar! Sorrowleaf! Stop your crying! Look at the both of you; it must be a family thing.”

Anaiya hated Tethis already. She was
not crying. She straightened her back, ignoring her protesting limbs, and glared straight ahead.

She wouldn't let him win.

She had no idea why he chose to pick on her and a handful of others specifically. It wasn't like she was slacking; sure, she was far from the best of the recruits, but she certainly wasn't the worst either. There were close to two dozen aspiring rangers in total, if that, and he singled out her and two others. One man whose name she didn't know and her loathsome cousin Tiren, who was most certainly near the bottom of the recruits in terms of ability. She didn't like him. He was always obnoxious and snotty, ever since their parents had first introduced them. And now his slacking was getting her in trouble by association.

It was infuriating.

“Let's switch it up a bit,” Tethis snarled, prowling up and down the line of recruits like an angry cat, “and see if you're a little better at beating each other up than anything else. Pair up and grab a training weapon.”

Everyone was frozen for a moment. He wanted them to
fight, after everything they had just done? Everyone was bone tired, barely able to walk straight!

As if he had read their thoughts (it wouldn't really surprise her if he had), Tethis began shouting again. “Do you ingrates have a problem with that? It was
not a request, recruits; get to it! I don't care how tired you are, or how much you whine; if any of you somehow manage to become real rangers, you're gonna have to fight in conditions like this, when you're dead tired or about to drop from wounds. Now pair up! Anar and Sorrowleaf, you don't go together. I want to actually see something useful happen.”

Anaiya ground her teeth, stalking over to the rack and snatching up a wooden sword. It was heavy, heavier than a piece of wood should have been. She was proud of the fact that her legs only wobbled a little.

Anaiya paused then, glancing around uncomfortably. She actually had been going to pick Tiren: not because she liked him, far from it, but because he was the only one here that she knew.

“By the Sunwell, Sorrowleaf, how long are you going to stand around like an idiot? You, next to her, take some pity on the girl and let her cry on your shoulder.”

Anasterian forgive her when she snapped, because at this rate it would most certainly happen.

She looked around to see the elf Tethis had paired her with eyeing her appraisingly.

He was tall, taller than her by a good head or so, rather attractive and with a shock of red hair many shades brighter than her own. There was a sheen of sweat on his forehead, but nothing like the buckets Anaiya, and most of the others, were sweating.

Anaiya went scarlet as she realized how she must look and smell. It was embarrassing.

Her partner grinned at her. “Not going to burst into tears, are you?” He asked.

Anaiya glowered at him. She suddenly didn't like him, either. “No,” she snapped.

“Wonderful. Think we can get started, then?”

Anaiya glanced around, noticing with a guilty start that everyone else was already whacking away at each other while they were standing around staring at each other.

“Yeah, let's-”

Something cracked across the side of her face with sufficient force to send her stumbling to the ground. Pain blasted through her head, and she groaned weakly. Anaiya felt blood trickling down the side of her head, and turned to stare up at her attacker.

Her partner shrugged, twirling his sword carelessly. “You should pay more attention to what's going on around you,” he advised. “Didn't make you cry, did I?”

With a snarl of rage, Anaiya launched herself at him, ignoring the exhaustion in her body and the protesting screams her muscles made. She flailed away with her wooden sword, the forms her father had taught her completely forgotten. Her partner was obviously better than her, knocking aside or dodging all of her attacks with, if not ease, then skill. It made her furious how disdainfully he moved, his lips curling in amused pity.

With a sigh, her partner finally attacked, lashing out with a quick strike that made her hand go numb. Her sword left her grip mid-strike, whirling away from their duel.

“I don't mean to be rude, but that was pretty pathetic,” her partner informed her, smiling slightly, “I'd advise you to just drop out now, before you're-”

Throwing decorum to the wind, Anaiya kicked him in the fork of the legs.

His eyes grew huge, going wider than she thought was possible, and a strangled gasp was all that emerged from his gaping mouth.

“You should pay more attention to what's going on around you,” Anaiya said sweetly as he fell to his knees.

“There we go!” Tethis roared in her ear, making her jump a foot in the air, “Don't fight an enemy on their terms! Improvise! If they're expecting something, do something else! Maybe there's hope for you yet, Sorrowleaf.” He eyed her. “Or maybe not. Now! We're going to…”

He moved off down the line, still shouting, but Anaiya was watching only her partner as he struggled back to his feet, eyes shooting daggers at her.

“You're gonna regret that,” he vowed, furious, “You'll be dropping out of training before the month's up, or my name's not Veldoran.”

“Yeah?” Anaiya smirked. “You might want to look into changing your name, then, because I'm not going anywhere.”

“You have no idea who you're dealing with,” he said ominously. “You'll be crying to Tethis before the month's out.”

“I'll take that bet,” Anaiya returned, still smiling.

“Switch partners!” Tethis shouted.

Anaiya moved away with only a slight stagger, waving as she went. She was utterly exhausted, and they weren't near finished, but now she had something to prove, someone to show up. Her second wind had arrived.

Her smirking smugly, him glaring furiously, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.


Anaiya smiled softly, her thumb tracing the silver band on her hand.

They had been so young, so childish. Barely even considered adults, it seemed like so long ago. It was quite some time past; half a century was nothing to scoff at, but still.

She had been so brash, so fiery and confident. He had been arrogant, as naïve and confident as she. That they had struck sparks had been inevitable.

She dropped her hand, hiding the ring from view.

She had no time for such reflections.

Anaiya saw Vainar approaching, his red robes swirling slightly in the wind, and she twitched the cowl of her cloak to shade her eyes from the sun.

For some reason, she inexplicably found her eyes drawn to Celladia, the sole other elf in this clan, as she argued with Lok'magrosh. Without quite knowing why, Anaiya felt a bit uneasy. She looked away, back to the water.

There were storm clouds on the horizon. She hoped they did not foretell something altogether more ominous.
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#3
((The more I think about it, the more I think my dating is off. I don't think this was a month after the previous post's events. Oh well.))


Filial Obligations


Four months prior to present events



Well, there certainly had been a storm. It had passed, but now they had to clean up the mess left behind.

Celladia was dead.

And it was mostly Anaiya's fault.

Anaiya had gotten to know the elf in the days since she joined their clan. They'd had a rocky start, but they'd moved past it, and Anaiya had ended up…talking, about herself, about Celladia, about normal things. An unheard of occurrence. Granted, it had been because the brash Celladia had indignantly called her on it, after she had told a story and Anaiya had not reciprocated. It was certainly a new experience, but not one she was altogether displeased with. They hadn't exactly hit it off immediately, but they'd grown friendly, eventually. It was the first time she'd made a real, honest friend in years.

And then Celladia had turned around and stabbed them all in the back.

Nothing personal, she had said casually, as she led Jabtok's band of filth into their camp. Lok'magrosh had wronged her, and the concepts of loyalty and respect were apparently foreign to the young elf. She rode in on her high horse, calling her ex-chieftain out, before proceeding to plant an arrow in him.

The fight that followed had been quick and fierce, and Anaiya had nearly arrived too late to assist. She'd loosed a few shafts before the impetuous whelps had beat a hasty retreat, that other elf –what was his name, Taelyn?- running off with one of her arrows stuck in his chain shirt. Several on both sides had been injured, though none too seriously on Jabtok's side, it seemed, for when Anaiya tried to chase them down, after ensuring none of her clan were in danger of bleeding out, there was almost no trace. They had escaped quickly and cleanly.

But it would not be the end of that conflict, oh no.

When the clan learned from one of their newcomers, a tauren by the name of Oruuk, that their wayward elf had killed his son, the last straw broke.

Squk had tried to find and kill Celladia himself, and failed miserably. The well-meaning fool had nearly gotten himself killed, and Celladia, his least favorite person even before her betrayal, had stolen his axe. Lok'magrosh had ordered him to remain in the camp until further notice.

Anaiya felt a bit sorry for him. He wanted the kill, but that privilege…

…That was going to be Anaiya's, if the traitor died.

Lok'magrosh had given her a Look when she informed him she would be tracking Celladia down. Their chieftain had warned her to be careful, that he would lose no more of the clan that day. A touching speech, to be sure.

But it would not dissuade her.

It took her the better part of a day to pick up Celladia's trail. She was good at covering her tracks, but Anaiya was better at finding them. She cornered her wayward friend just outside of Ratchet's borders, out of the bruisers' authority. Celladia had been with her shaman friend, speaking urgently and quietly to the old orc.

She sounded scared, alone, and desperate. It made Anaiya's heart clench, but she steeled herself.

She was ice. Unfeeling, unyielding. Cold and logical.

Anaiya had approached Celladia then, discarding her weaponry at her once-friend's order. She only wanted to talk.

And when it came down to it, she would not need a blade to finish this.

So they talked. Why, Anaiya had asked. Why. Did it all mean so little to her? She could just throw it all away like that?

Celladia had shaken her head, eyes shining. No. She still considered Anaiya a friend. She just couldn't be around Lok'magrosh any longer. He had wronged her, as had many of the clan.

Anaiya remembered the callous slaying of the zevhra, how Koriel had played with it, and how Celladia had shook with rage.

And she understood.

Celladia did what she felt was right. She followed her own values and rules above all others. Lok had broken her rules, slighted her, and she felt no obligation to remain in his clan, under his rules. She didn't want to hurt the rest of them; she was dealing retribution as she felt was right.

It was in that moment that Anaiya decided to let her go.

Celladia reminded her of Vareyn, she realized. Her temperament, her willingness to break the rules, and her personal code of honor. The animals, too…



“Well, I think it's a bad idea,” Anaiya said, glowering. Why was she the only mature one here? Honestly.

Vareyn tossed her blonde hair in annoyance, scowling right back at her younger sister. She shared her bright hair with their father; Anaiya was very proud to have inherited her mother's shining crimson. Everyone said she looked just like her mother, and Anaiya always beamed at the praise. Her mother was a very pretty person.

“Honestly, Anna,” Vareyn said impatiently, “when are you going to grow up?”

Anaiya bristled. She was very grown up for her age. Mother said so. “Mother said not to go near them,” she continued stubbornly. “They're not safe.”

“If they were dangerous,” her sister said, with an air of feigned patience, “why do the Rangers let them wander around?”

She had a point, Anaiya thought, biting her lip. Vareyn never said stupid things. The Rangers would never let anything not safe near them. General Windrunner would have them running laps around Quel'thalas for a month. “…But Mother said-”

Vareyn cut her off with a wave of her hand, sighing. “I'm old enough to make my own decisions, Anna. Mother isn't always right, anyway. You've got to think for yourself sooner or later.”

Anaiya glared up at her sister, scandalized. Mother was
always right.

Vareyn continued. “You make your own choices, and you take the consequences. I'm not going to let anyone else dictate how I should live or think. I'm my own person, and so are you.”

“But,” Anaiya flailed around for an answer, “we're supposed to do what Mother and Father say, because-”

“You're not going to be with Mom and Dad forever, Anna. Sooner or later you're going to have to stand on your own.
I'm going anyway. You can come if you want, or you can stay here and be boring.” And with that, she turned or her heel and walked off into the trees, towards where they had seen the Springpaw disappear.

Anaiya watched her go, agonized with indecision. Mother had forbidden them from going near the lynxes; they could claw and bite, and they were not safe for little girls to be around. But Vareyn was her sister; Vareyn was smart. Everyone said Vareyn had such a lovely voice, too. That was from her Mother. Lots of people came whenever Vareyn sang at a play or concert. People liked her.

Anaiya wished she could sing like Vareyn could.

Vareyn always knew what to do. People trusted her, and liked her. Anaiya did too. Mother always knew what to do too, but…she wasn't here. And she had told Anaiya to listen to Vareyn…

With a groan, she hurried off after Vareyn. “Wait! Wait! I'm coming!” She burst through the trees and stopped dead, her mouth dropping open slightly.

Vareyn knelt in the center of a small clearing, crooning softly and stroking the fur of the Springpaw lynx lying on the grass. She raised a finger to her lips, warning Anaiya to be silent as her other hand scratched behind the big cat's ears.

“Come on,” Vareyn said softly, smiling encouragingly, “it's okay. Just be quiet.”

Anaiya was very nervous, and she swallowed hard as the lynx yawned, revealing a mouthful of very sharp teeth. “Vareyn,” she said in a strangled whisper, “look at its
teeth.”

Her sister began to scratch on the inside of the cat's neck, and Anaiya froze as an odd purring sound rumbled out from the Springpaw. Its eyes were closed. Vareyn motioned her closer, face flushed with excitement. Slowly, ever so slowly, Anaiya edged forward, not taking her eyes off the furry jaw.

Soon enough, she stood over it, trembling slightly. She had never disobeyed her mother before, or gotten this close to a Spingpaw. It was terrifying, but exhilarating at the same time. She knelt down beside Vareyn, and the cat's eyes opened.

It eyed her for a moment while Anaiya remained immobile, unable to look away from the bright yellow eyes.

The lynx closed its eyes again as Vareyn continued to scratch, and Anaiya let out a long breath.

“Go on,” Vareyn whispered, smiling at her, “it'll be fine. Just here.” She guided Anaiya's hand to the fur between the cat's ears. Hesitantly, Anaiya moved her fingers, massaging the muscles beneath. The fur was soft. It was very nice, actually. Anaiya found herself smiling, then grinning as the cat began to purr.

Vareyn was right, again.

“See?” Her sister said, nudging her playfully. “Not so bad.”

“Not so bad,” Anaiya agreed, then frowned. “But, Mother…”

Vareyn slung her free arm around Anaiya's shoulders. “You make your own decisions, Anna. But you take the consequences in stride. Mother won't be happy, but I wanted to do this. Sometimes you gotta just do what feels right. No matter what people think.”

Vareyn pulled her baby sister close, planting a kiss on the top of her head. Anaiya loved her sister. Vareyn always knew what to do. She was a pain sometimes, but Anaiya loved her anyway. When she grew up, she'd be just like that.

And they sat there in the sunlight, stroking the dozing cat.




She could pretend it didn't hurt, but she was only lying to herself. She sometimes thought wistfully about her sister's counsel, wishing for it again, but that would not change anything. She knew what she should do, and what Vareyn would have done. Celladia was a traitor. She had betrayed them and taken up arms against the clan.

But Vareyn would've done the same thing, had she felt so wronged. In dealing retribution to Celladia, Anaiya would be damning Celladia and Vareyn both, turning her back on everything her sister had ever tried to teach her.

She looked at Celladia's face; drawn tight, hunted, scared, ready to bolt at the first scent of danger.

And Anaiya couldn't do it. She couldn't throw it all away, and she couldn't kill her friend.

And that was when Lok had showed up, and taken the decision out of her hands.

Celladia had thought Anaiya had led him here, distracting her long enough for Lok to box her in. And now she was weaponless. Celladia had disarmed herself as well when she went to talk to Anaiya. Fair was fair, after all. Celladia spat at Anaiya, hurling poisoned words before turning her full attention to her last battle.

But it was not true. Anaiya had not known Lok had followed her. She didn't mean to trap Celladia. If she had decided to kill Celladia, it would have been fair, a one on one duel, both armed. She had not meant to corner Celladia, to pit her alone, weaponless, against a furious death knight and his murderous runeblade.

But she had.

She hadn't meant to get her friend killed.

But she had.

Celladia died, spitting in Lok's face as the death knight ran her through, runeblade emerging from her back in a horrific spray of bright blood. Anaiya watched the light fade from her eyes, and her chieftain kick the traitor's corpse off his weapon.

And Anaiya had left without a word.

She couldn't have spoken, anyway.

And so she sat on the watchtower, fingering the silver ring on her finger.

Vareyn had helped choose that design. Anaiya remembered her sister grousing about how men had no taste in jewelry, and how lucky Anaiya was to have Vareyn around to save her.

She felt her eyes watering, slightly, but she refused to let the tears fall.

She had vowed never to shed a tear again, to reveal such weakness. She had held to that promise for years, and she would not break it now. Not ever.

Vainar came and sat beside her. He didn't speak, just sat there with her, and then everything wasn't quite so bad.
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#4
((Yeah, decently sure I butchered the timeline. Just going to go with more vague dates now. Also, this thing is indenting oddly. Not sure why. Try to ignore it. ))


Teachers and Training, Old and New



Some months prior to present events...




Anaiya watched from her high perch as Sozun and Oruuk spoke in the camp below, twitching her hood slightly against the wind-blown dust.

That was bound to be an interesting conversation.

Oruuk was kind, gentle, and rather down to earth. Sozun was...

Well.

Sozun.

And Sozun was none of those things.

They were the light and the dark, if you would.

Though she regretted the circumstances that had brought the tauren here, she was glad of his presence. She genuinely enjoyed his company, which was unusual in and of itself; she preferred to be alone the majority of the time. But Oruuk...

He was different. He listened patiently when she talked and gave advice without judgment. It was...refreshing, not having to guard every word, to phrase each sentence carefully. He had even begun teaching her some tauren meditation tricks as well, which were quite interesting.

It was training, of sorts. He taught her forms, techniques, ways to focus her mind and body, and when she had completed each step, they moved on to the next one.

If nothing else, it was a wonderful distraction.

Oruuk had come to them while searching for his lost son.

Celladia had killed his child. That was what had pushed Lok over the edge, finally made him hunt her down.

She was responsible for so much pain, so much suffering, but Anaiya…

Anaiya pushed Celladia from her mind. Thinking about her was a distraction, an unnecessary one that she could ill-afford.

Sozun and Oruuk were finishing up their conversation below. Ah well. Anaiya leaned back, closing her eyes.

Time for a bit more practice.

Anaiya squared herself as she settled into her usual stance, breathing in and out in a regular pattern through her nose. Her body relaxed, slowly, muscles loosening, tensions easing.

In and out. In and out.

She felt her chest rising and falling in time with her breaths, the steady, slowing pulse of her heartbeat.

In and out. In and out.

She could hear the wind brushing the grass, meandering its way between the empty hills, over the barren plains.

In and out. In and out.

She could smell the warmth in the air, the scent of pine from the ancient trees in the valley to the south. The smells, the scents from all across the Barrens, they all mixed together in her nostrils, but she could distinguish them all individually as easily as breathing.

In and out. In and out.

Somewhere, far to the north, much farther than she should have been able to hear, a prairie dog squeaked, the dirt rustling as it darted back into its hole, the snarl of a hunting cat, the thump as it missed its target, the crumbling of displaced dirt, the rapid breaths of the terrified animal, the frustrated whines of the hungry cat.

In and out. In and out.

“Yes,” Oruuk said, as Anaiya could suddenly hear him, “though the races of Azeroth watch you closely. The Shu'halo often believe those who have one foot in the canoe, and one foot in the boat, are going to fall into the river.”

The dead muscles of Sozun's face creak, a frown forming, "I've noticed...ever since...Well, never mind it but now Undercity just can't seem to keep the orcs out..."
Something in his upper torso creaks as well. A shrug. He has not responded to all of Oruuk's statement. Only the first half.

In and out. In and out.

“I have heard of your homeland's distress,” Oruuk continued, the wind rippling across his fur, a whisper of sound, “I suppose daemons are always true to their nature.”

There is no noise from Sozun, not a hint of movement. He is expressionless, motionless. “Perhaps,” he says coolly.

In and out. In and out.

There is a rustle from Oruuk. The tauren shifts, air rushing in and out in a loud snort. “As much as I would like to ask more questions, I must return to my duties. Owachi for your time.”

More rustling. The air shifts, the dirt is displaced. He bows.

In and out. In and out.

Old bones groan, rotted flesh stretches. Sozun inclines his head. A small nod. The air moves, his robe swirls, and he departs. His staff clicks against the ground with each step.

In and out.

Anaiya smiled.

Oruuk would be pleased. He hadn't expected her to grasp this step so quickly.

It was good to have something to do, at the very least. Something to focus on, to devote herself to.

She had been lacking that, of late.

Bizarrely, she was reminded of her Ranger training, from days gone by. They were so different as to be laughable, but there were similarities, if only small ones.

Oruuk wasn't much like her Ranger trainer, but he was a teacher, and she was the student again. It was...heartening, for lack of a better term. For once, she wasn't in command, didn't have to give this order or that one or make sure this got done. Right now, she just had to do as she was told.

Relaxing. That was the word. Was it so foreign to her?

Anaiya felt that nostalgic feeling coming on again.




She'd done it. Finally.

Ranger Hell was over.

Barely a dozen of the aspirants had passed; just under half of the starting recruits. The rest had washed out, either after the first day or after some of their more trying exams. Tiren was gone, she noted with a tiny bit of satisfaction, his whining with him.

Not many had expected her to stay with it this long. Tethis commented on it daily, as had Veldoran, initially. He'd stopped after the first few weeks.

Even her
father had been skeptical of her chances. It upset her to realize that he thought the humiliation of washing out of training would have been good for her, not the training itself.

Vareyn had always been there for her, though. Always been there when the tears streamed down her face, and she wanted to quit. Always the one to get her back in the game, to remind her why she wanted this, why she needed to do it.

To prove them all wrong. Her father, Tethis, Veldoran, all of them.

Vareyn always had her back.

And Anaiya had done it. She'd beaten Tethis and his constant insults, the badgering, the “special exercises”, which consisted of everyone elses' trials multiplied by three or so. She needed the extra motivation, he'd claimed.

Ha.

But most importantly, she'd beaten Veldoran.

Her lips twitched in a frown.

Well. Not quite, if she were being honest with herself. They had tied. Which was even more frustrating than losing. He was physically stronger than her, but she made up for it with superior speed, meaning that their sparring sessions always ended in a draw, Tethis calling them off before a clear victor was ever decided. They were tied at the head of the class, and she was sure it made him as mad as it did her. Tethis had made sure to pair them up as often as possible. Their quarreling amused him, apparently, because Anaiya couldn't really see any other reason for him to continue putting them together.

Even in those pairs, each tried their best to outperform the other, never to succeed. They far outclassed the other groups in any sort of competition, which Anaiya supposed was the funny part: their
lack of teamwork was better teamwork than that of the other groups. Whenever they were required to work together, the first one to shirk the responsibility or make a comment about the other was the one who lost, quite the opposite of their normal games.

They both played to win, and if they couldn't beat each other, they'd beat everyone else.

Anaiya snapped her attention back to the present as Tethis spoke.

“I'd congratulate you all,” the ranger said dryly, “but I think you've done enough of that yourselves.”

They probably had, too. Anaiya knew her parents were planning a surprise celebration when she got back; they had planned on attending the graduation ceremony, but no one outside of the aspirants were allowed to be there. Maybe her father would apologize.

“ Besides, you're not done yet.”

Anaiya blinked, and a murmur spread down the line of ranger aspirants. Veldoran stiffened beside her. Tethis had always made them stand next to each other, too. Damn him.

“Oh no,” he continued, “you finished with the basic steps, and now you've got to learn the real stuff. Every soldier in Quel'thalas has run the course you just finished, tough as it is, but only the Rangers undergo this next phase. These skills are what will make you a true Ranger, beyond the competence of our regular soldiers, though they are the finest in Azeroth. As such, it's only fitting you learn the ropes from a true master, individually. You have all been assigned to the tutelage of one of the senior rangers, one on one. They will teach you everything there is to know about hunting and tracking, escape and evasion, fighting and killing. With the individual instruction, your mentor will be better able to find your weaknesses, what you need to learn, better than I could with a group of you. You graduate and become a Ranger when they say so and not a moment before.”

He looked around at them, a hint of a smile on his hard face.

“Buck up, ladies and gentlemen. The easy part is over. Now, rest easy for a few minutes until your tutors arrive.”

Slightly nonplussed, the aspirants all nodded dumbly as Tethis turned away.

Anaiya scowled.

So maybe she hadn't done it quite yet.

Well, she'd be a better Ranger for it, then.

Veldoran tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned to face him.

“I guess this is it,” he said lightly, “boot camp's finally over, but now we get the real training.”

“Seems that way,” Anaiya agreed, eyeing him. He was being nice. He was nearly always polite, but nearly always with a biting, mean edge.

Why was he being nice?

“No more competitions, then,” he said, sounding almost regretful, “ah well.”

She understood the sentiment. Annoying as he was, their rivalry had been fun, at times. It was always something to drive her when she was about to give up. She couldn't let him win, so she persevered.

“I'll miss it,” she said truthfully, because she really would.

Might not miss him too much, but the competition, yes.

“But you know,” she continued, “now we'll be learning different things, from different teachers. We won't be able to anticipate what the other knows anymore.” She grinned at him. “This competition's not over yet.”

Veldoran smirked back at her. “I see where this is going. Whose got the better teacher, then?”

“Nah,” Anaiya said, “who's the better
Ranger.”

Veldoran stuck out his hand. “You're on, then,” he said, “but don't think I'll go easy on you.”

Anaiya took his hand and shook it, squeezing harder than was necessary, but as hard as he was squeezing. “I'd be annoyed if you did.”

“Cute,” someone said, voice amused, from behind them.

They spun, each releasing the other's hand swiftly.

“If you two are finished,” the ranger said, a small smile playing about his lips, “I'll talk. Unless you'd like to continue…?”

“No,” Anaiya said quickly, flushing slightly and sidling unobtrusively away from Veldoran, “Please, speak.”

How quietly he moved! She hadn't heard a thing.

“Very well then. I am Ranger Laethan. Veldoran, you will be my pupil, for however long you last.”

Veldoran stood up a bit straighter. “I intend to last however long you can teach. Sir.”

Laethan raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Well, we'll see about that, won't we?” He eyed Veldoran appraisingly for a long moment, then nodded. “We will indeed. Meet me by the north sanctum at dawn tomorrow, and we'll begin.”

“Yes sir,” Veldoran answered, snapping a crisp salute.

“Very well. I'll leave you and your pretty lady here alone, then.”

This time it was Veldoran's turn to flush as Laethan turned on his heel and strode away.

“Right, well,” he said, looking at a point slightly above Anaiya's head, “Bye then.”

Anaiya gave him a small wave as he headed off, then frowned as she observed the rest of the area.

Veldoran was the last student to depart. All the others had left either alone or with their mentors. It was just Anaiya and Tethis left on the field.

She felt a bit left out. Where was
her teacher?

“Sorrowleaf! Come here.”

Anaiya approached her now ex-drill instructor, letting none of the nervousness she felt show on her face.

“Don't look so worried. Your teacher just does things a bit differently.”

Okay, maybe she had let a little bit show.

“Who is my teacher, sir?”

“Ranger Anya Eversong is going to be in charge of making you a Farstrider.” Tethis looked more closely at her. “…You look surprised.”

Anaiya was surprised, and with good reason. “I've seen her a
lot lately,” she explained. “I've met her before, once, but I've seen her a dozen times in the past few months of training.”

“And she was there a hundred times more that you weren't aware of her. She chose you as her pupil, you see. None of the trainees were assigned to a Ranger tutor; you were all chosen. Each of the Rangers selected the one they wanted to train. They all were watching you aspirants, some more often than others, but Anya claimed you right out of the gate. Within the first month, which is unusual. I guess she saw something she liked in you.”

Anaiya felt a warm rush of pride and pleasure. She had only spoken with Ranger Anya once, in passing, but her father held quite a high opinion of the woman, and that was enough for her. And the Ranger had picked her, out of all the others.

“I'm honored,” she managed, feeling slightly overwhelmed. Her father would be so pleased.

Tethis watched her silently for a moment before nodding. “Yes,” he said simply, “you are. Very few get the privilege of become one of the Ranger elite. Now, you have an assignment as well, though yours is a bit different than everyone elses'.”

Anaiya frowned slightly. “How so?”

Tethis smiled at her. “Find her,” he said. “Find Ranger Anya, and then she'll begin training you.”

Anaiya blinked. “How am I supposed to track a master Ranger when I haven't learned anything beyond
basic tracking?”

Tethis nodded thoughtfully. “Good question,” he said, walking away. “And good luck finding an answer. You've got potential, Sorrowleaf. It just took some time for it to show. Don't let it go to waste.”

Anaiya stared after the Ranger trainer as he vanished into the trees, extremely nonplussed.

Well. She certainly had her work cut out for her.

She looked around at the silent forest for a moment. Without a doubt, Anya was out there, watching. But Anaiya wouldn't be able to find her, not now. She had to find another way.

That was the whole exercise, wasn't it?

She sure hoped so.

“In that case,” she announced to no one in particular, “I'm going to go home and enjoy the night with my family,
and then I'll come up with a way to catch you.”

And with that, she turned and marched off, back towards her home and waiting family.

She would have sworn she heard faint laughter on the breeze.



Anaiya opened her eyes slowly, twitching her hood low against the blazing Barrens sun.

She had been such an idealist, so full of fire and determination. She had had so many people around her, for motivation, encouragement, even a shoulder to rest her head on.

But no longer.

Right now, she there was only one person whose shoulder she would use, whose presence she drew strength from.

But he wasn't here.

Hadn't been here.

“Where are you, Vainar,” she murmured into the wind.

If she were still young and naïve, she might have fancied that the breeze would carry her words to his ears, wherever he was, and he would turn his head, look in her direction…

She was no longer either.

But that did not mean she couldn't dream.

“Come back.” She mouthed the words, not daring to let the sound escape her lips. “I miss you.”

When she realized how she sounded, like a love-struck child, Anaiya chuckled softly, dryly. If he wanted to come back...he would.

And that was that.

There was no use dwelling on the past, on Vainar's disappearances, on Celladia, on any of it.

She did not have time to waste on such fancies. No time for distractions.

A moment later, Anaiya had closed her eyes, her breath falling into a slow, regular pattern.

In and out. In and out.

Practice makes perfect, after all.



((This is longer than I thought it was. Oh well. Also, Anya Eversong. One of the random Dark Ranger hero names from Warcraft 3. I thought it would be reasonable to assume she was a Ranger 50+ years before she died.
Plus, I like the name.
'Til next time. ))
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#5
To the Gates of the Citadel

Some months prior to present events

It was time, at last.
No more idyllic lounging.
No more tearful drama.
No more tentative attempts at romance.
Anaiya pulled the final strap tight on her breastplate.
The frozen north called.
The assault on Icecrown Citadel was finally beginning.
All available (and some that weren't exactly available) forces of the newly-formed Ashen Verdict, the Horde, and the Alliance were converging for the final push.
The Horde's warcry was particularly apt for this day.
Victory or death.
All or nothing.
Anaiya tightened her swordbelt, adjusting the jeweled longblade that hung down her back. She ran her fingers over her scarred armor, feeling the welded tears and patched rips. The soles of her battered greaves were worn smooth by the tread of countless leagues.
The armor had served her well for almost a decade, though it was certainly showing its age.
Well. It would last a while longer yet…and she might not need it after today.
“We really need to go,” Delan said, wiping sweat from his brow. “We're only waiting on you.” The mage was overheating quickly, and Anaiya was getting there: they were dressed for the frozen roof of the world, not the baking sun of the Barrens.
But combat was always hot, even in a blizzard. Adrenaline, fear, hate, panic, rage, those warmed you better than any cloak.
“One moment,” Anaiya replied, picking up her quill and setting it to the parchment, ignoring the elf's impatient sigh.
Everyone was out, doing something; Lok, Yvakara, Squk…she didn't have time to wait for them. She needed to leave, really had needed to leave a few minutes ago; Delan had created a portal for her specifically and come to get her. Her unit needed a new commander.

Lok'magrosh,
You have my deepest apologies for this letter. I would have much preferred to speak face to face, but time is against me. As I write this, I am preparing to depart to Northrend. I have received instructions from my superiors in the frozen wastes, and a mage is standing by to prepare a portal.
Now is the time to strike. The assault upon Icecrown Citadel will commence shortly.
It's all led to this. I'm going to be there.
Many will not survive. It's entirely possible, even likely, that I will be among the fallen. If that is the case, and I don't return, I want you to know it was an honor serving with you. I wish you all the best of luck. Please apologize to Oruuk for me; I only have time for one letter. I thank him for his training, and I enjoyed our conversations. I will miss him.
Punch Taelyn for me as well, if you would.
And if I don't make it back, tell Squk he's not so bad after all.
Lok'tar Ogar, Lok'magrosh.
Anaiya


She hesitated, quill-tip pausing, Delan's fingers drumming impatiently against his arm.
Vainar. He wasn't here. Not here here, but somewhere in the Barrens. He had come back just a few days ago…and now she was going to have to pull the same disappearing act she hated so much.


It was raining again.
Anaiya's hood was soaked, and the dampness was seeping into her hair. She could feel the droplets running down the joints in her armor, trailing over the worn plates and soaking the fabric beneath. She was going to have to clean it all again tonight. Rust and mildew were rather unpleasant things.
It would have been good sense to step back under the watchtower's awning to shield herself from the rain, so she wasn't quite sure why she was standing just beyond it, being pelted by the falling drops.
She could see better from here.
Anaiya suppressed a yawn.
Maybe she'd clean tomorrow.
“What on earth are you doing out here?”
Anaiya froze, the voice instantly recognizable. She whipped around, raindrops spraying everywhere.
Vainar stood at the top of the ramp, not looking nearly as wet as he should. It must have been a magic thing. Anaiya realized that she must look similar to a drowned rat, and the thought brought a tiny rush of heat to her cheeks.
That thought was driven out of her mind a moment later as a far more poignant one crashed down on her.
He was
back.
“What am I doing here?” She snapped, “What are you doing here?”
Vainar frowned at her. “I didn't know you hated my visits so much.”
“You've been gone for how long,” Anaiya said acidly, “and now just drop in for a visit?”
About a month, it had been. She remembered.
Vainar shrugged, which annoyed her. “I've been busy,” he said, then grinned slightly. “Dealing with my personal demons, if you will.”
Anaiya scowled at him. “What does that mean?”
Vainar waved a hand at her. “Never you mind, now. Anyway, I just came by to see how you were; it's late. I'll come back tomorrow.”
Anaiya glanced back out at the downpour. “You have a place to stay?”
He gestured vaguely behind him. “I'll find somewhere dry,” he said absently.
Anaiya frowned, looking back into the watchtower's admittedly small interior. Should she ask?
She almost hit herself. Of course she should ask. It was only common courtesy.
“You could stay here,” she said carefully. “If you want, that is.”
Vainar refocused on her immediately, and Anaiya felt her face grow hot.
She didn't mean it like that. He didn't think she meant that, did he? Oh, by the
Sunwe-
“Yes,” he said slowly, “I could do that.”
Anaiya blinked stupidly for a moment before shaking herself out of her stupor and gesturing inside, stepping through to the interior.
It was a humble living space; she had her bedroll, her pack, and her weapons leaning against one side. All in all, a six by six space that was plenty big enough for her.
Alone, that is.
“It's not much,” Anaiya said, “but it's enough for me.”
Vainar hmmed in acknowledgment, moving to the wall farthest from her gear. “I think I'll stay on this side.”
Anaiya nodded. “Alright.”
She felt water start to drip down her back, then hesitated.
…This had the potential to be awkward.
“I need to get out of this,” she said, gesturing at her dripping armor, “hope you don't mind.”
“Oh, not at all,” he said swiftly.
Well, that was a start, at least.
Anaiya nodded again, wavering in place for a moment before taking a deep breath and turning her back to him. She started on the armor straps.
She didn't want to sleep in wet armor, that was all. There was nothing more to it.
Her fingers kept slipping on the wet buckles and straps, making her fumble awkwardly. She got her cloak, gloves and bracers off easily enough, but hit a snag with one of the buckles on her breastplate.
It was on her side, out of sight, and her fingers kept slipping, not finding any good purchase. It was incredibly frustrating, and she probably looked like an idiot, too.
“Here,” Vainar said, his voice in her ear, and it took an enormous amount of self-control to not jump out of her skin. “Let me.”
She looked over her shoulder at him, then nodded her ascent.
Anaiya felt his fingers brush against her lower back, and just above her hip.
“There,” he said cheerfully as the buckle fell away. He moved back to his side of the room.
And that was all.
Anaiya almost kicked herself. She was acting like a child. It was silly and unbecoming.
This wasn't her. She was better than this, this…pining, or whatever it was.
Steel within, steel without.
“So,” she said, voice even as she removed the breastplate, “you said something about demons.”
Anaiya sat down, kicking off her boots as Vainar grinned at her. “That I did. Let me tell you a bit about it.”



“We really have to go now,” Delan said, his voice noticeably higher.
And they did, she supposed. She scribbled a quick addition onto the bottom of her note. There wasn't time to write another.

Tell Vainar I said goodbye.
And sorry.

She dropped the note onto the table and turned, cloak billowing behind her in the sudden chilly wind.
Time to go.
Anaiya stepped through the portal and arrived at the roof of the world, in the courtyard of Icecrown Citadel. It was full, packed with ranks of Argent Crusaders, of Ebon Blade knights, of Horde, of Alliance, all armed to the teeth, all ready to fight and die.
There was a great boom and a groaning screech as the metal gates of the Citadel crumpled under the battering ram's attack.
“RISE UP, ARGENT CRUSADERS!” Someone bellowed, and Anaiya recognized Fordring's voice, “THE HOUR OF JUSTICE HAS COME!”
A great roar went up from the ranks, and they surged forward, into the Citadel.
Anaiya twanged her bowstring and began threading her way through. She had to find Koltira.
There was much work to be done.
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#6
Final Gambit


Some months prior to present events



The halls rang with the sounds of combat, slick ice catching and amplifying the clashes of steel and screams of the dying until they echoed cacophonously in Anaiya's ears. She made a short, curt gesture, stopping her squad as they advanced behind her.

The assault on the Citadel was going well, from what she could gather. Overlord Saurfang had taken a small strike force via gunship up from the lower ramparts, trying to make quick progression through the sprawling castle while the rest of their forces made their way up the old fashioned way. The fact that Anaiya and her unit remained unmolested thus far meant that the strike force was progressing at a steady enough pace that the Lich King had to throw all of his forces against their advance.

The fact that she wasn't in that strike force made her furious inside, though she let none of her rage show on the outside. They were going to be the ones in the thick of the fighting, the ones who would confront the Lich King and his powerful lieutenants.

The fallen prince had taken everything from her people, from
her. Friends, family, husband, everything she had cared about, annihilated simply to utilize and befoul the Sunwell's energies.

And she would not have the opportunity to make good on her oath of vengeance.

She had almost
trembled when she was given her assignment. Finding suitable gunship berths on the Citadel's ramparts? Assisting other units?

She had calmed herself, however, with much effort. Someone had to do it. It was not what she would have liked, but it was what she would do.

As long as Arthas' head rolled on this day, she would be content.

At any rate, no news from the assault force was good news. It made her task easier if there weren't legions of Scourge swarming them.

Her squad was a balanced force, slightly larger than she was used to leading. Ten in all, there was Thokk and Kurog, the Warsong orcs, Ontanu and Aharu, the tauren druid brothers, Ja'avi, the troll beastmaster, Ramgol Earthsplitter, a shaman, Tar'zar, the troll warrior, Gideon, the curt and pragmatic Forsaken Fel-user, and Tyrion.

It was a solid, reliable, and dangerous group. Most of them had worked together in the past. Anaiya had fought alongside the orcs and trolls during the initial push into Borean Tundra, and Ja'avi again in Dragonblight. Gideon she knew to be very powerful; she had seen the warlock singlehandedly demolish a pair of blue drakes in Dragonblight. Much as she detested the demonic powers he wielded, his value was immense. The tauren brothers she knew little about save that they were peerless warriors and each almost never without his double. Tyrion seemed to be following her more than anything, but she was not complaining. Once a Scryer, he'd fought alongside her on many a battlefront, from the assaults against Kael'thas and Illidan, to the desperate struggle on the Isle of Quel'Danas as Shattered Sun members, to many of the conflicts in these frozen wastes. She'd saved his hide
far more times than he had hers, but he was a skilled fighter and his witty banter was always a welcome respite.

They had already dealt with a number of Scourge patrols in their ascent through the Citadel; mostly small groups, but one or two larger forces complete with spellcasters. They had put up a decent fight, but it was nothing her soldiers couldn't handle. Once the last corpse collapsed, they moved on to stalk and eliminate another group.

After finding a suitable berth for
Orgrim's Hammer, they had moved further into the Citadel, into a series of elegant, red-tinged hallways that were eerily empty. Echoes of combat reached them, as they did everywhere in the Citadel, but they saw no one, living or dead.

Something was not quite right. There was just a sense of utter
wrongness here.

Anaiya had the distinct and unpleasant feeling they were not the hunters this time.

“What is it?” Tyrion murmured in her ear.

Anaiya didn't answer immediately. Her gaze tracked slowly across the empty corridor, the elegantly decorated balcony, and the long drop beyond.
There was no one there.

“I don't know,” she said finally. “Just a feeling.”

And that, more than anything else, set everyone on their guard. The tauren brothers exchanged a look, and Ja'avi muttered something to the pair of hyenas following on her heels. Gideon snorted.

They knew her ‘feelings' from experience and by reputation. After the fiasco with Ironskull, people had started to trust her intuition a bit more.

After a moment, she started forward again, adjusting the magical longblade hanging down her back. Her squad began to spread out a little as they advanced.

Anaiya studied the tapestries, the elaborate chairs and cushions, the beautiful crimson drapes…

It was so familiar. Why was that?

She paused, frowning, even as her squad continued moving.

It seemed so familiar because it
was familiar.

This room, everything in it, was elven in design.

“San'layn,” she breathed, with a suddenly dry mouth.

They had received reports of the Darkfallen, the Scourge-aligned blood elves, throughout the campaign in Northrend. It was never more than scattered sightings, a commander here or there, never in any great numbers. But they were always cunning, deadly, and incredibly hard to kill.

And it appeared Anaiya and her team had stumbled across where the rest of them had been hiding.

“Stop,” she said urgently, coming to a sudden halt, “we've got to-”

There was a sudden displacement of air behind her, no more than the tiniest whisper of sound in her ear, but it was enough. Anaiya whirled, bringing her bow up and an arrow to her cheek.

An elf stood at the end of the hall. He was tall and dressed in shadowy-gray armor adorned with skulls and other macabre decorations. By itself that was not such an unusual thing to see, but there were a few glaring discrepancies that really made him
not very usual at all. There was a sickly, grayish pallor to his skin horribly reminiscent of a corpse, and his eyes were a solid, dead white. His fingernails tapered off into veritable blades.

Her companions were all making noises and moving around, forming a defensive ring in the center of the corridor as no less than six more Darkfallen appeared around them.

The San'layn smiled at her, and Anaiya noticed that his teeth were filed to jagged points.

Despite herself, Anaiya felt a cold knot of fear form in her gut.

“We can do this,” she murmured, even as the San'layn strolled towards them. “Usual formation. Pick your targets, hit them hard and don't let up. Victory or death.”

They knew what was at stake. They would not fail, and Anaiya felt a rush of warmth that banished any fear she had felt. She was proud to serve with all of them, proud enough to die with them, if need be.

But it wouldn't be.

“Go.”

And they went.

Ontanu and Aharu leapt forward, already shifting into their more feral forms and bounding towards one of the undead elves dressed in a robe.

Gideon thrust a hand out at a female San'layn, firing a jet of pure fel energy at her. His eyes widened in surprise and anger as she deflected the blast with a flick of her wrist. A cruel smile played across the Darkfallen's mouth, and within moments the two warlocks were surrounded by a deadly conflagration of fire and shadow as the magical duel began in full.

Thokk and Kurog charged the same target, axes leading, roaring warcries. The San'layn whirled to meet them, blade flashing.

Tar'zar and Ja'avi also teamed up on a single elf, the beastmaster's howling hyenas weaving in and out around Tar'zar as the troll spun his huge mace.

Ramgol conjured fire and lightning, blasting at his San'layn with the power of the elements as Tyrion dueled the undead monster in a flurry of blade clashes and sparks.

Anaiya realized her mistake half an instant later. In the scant moment it had taken to assess the battlefield and note her team's positions, she had taken her eyes off of her opponent. Without thought, she released the already drawn shaft, bowstring snapping forward with a twang. The San'layn had already covered half of the distance between them in the time it took for her eyes to flick side to side, and he blurred away from her arrow with supernatural speed.

Knowing she would not have time for a second shot, Anaiya let her bow drop, longblade and dagger clearing their sheaths in the same moment, and not one too soon. She had not even brought her sword completely across her chest yet before she felt the impact of the Darkfallen's blade. Instinct guided her body as she spun away, flicking the attacking weapon wide.

The San'layn was frighteningly fast, his other blade whipping across before she had even finished deflecting his first attack. His speed more than made up for the reduced reach of his short weapons. She was reeling, barely fending off the barrage of attacks he was raining on her. She had to regain control of the offense; she couldn't stay defensive and hope to survive. Scourge creatures were tireless, relentless.

Anaiya was not.

If she could get a bit of distance, the reach of her longblade would give that vital, probably momentary, advantage.

The San'layn smiled at her, as if he knew exactly what she were thinking, and pressed his assault.


You want to dance, Anaiya thought. Then let's dance.

And their dance of death began.

Nothing stopped moving, stopped working, for even the slightest half of a moment; not bodies, not blades, not minds. Her blade was always there to block his, and he was always not there when she struck. Her lightning-quick ripostes met his blazing-fast guard, his vicious counters met her elegant parries. They quick-stepped across the hall, each matching the other step for step and stroke for stroke.

His cross strike was blocked by the extended guard of her longblade, which she snapped down his arm with a flick of her wrist, keen tip stabbing at his bicep. His wrist arched into the flat of her blade, sending her strike whistling over his shoulder even as he stabbed up at her arm and his other sword arched in towards her side. Anaiya bent her elbow, whipping her longblade back, under and around his arm to jab at his chest. Her offhand dagger clashed, countered, parried, or riposted six times in blurred succession and all the while Anaiya was moving steadily backward, and all the while he was moving evenly forward, keeping right with her. Slowly, but surely, she was gaining centimeters, then inches. Just a bit more space, and the scales would slide in her favor.

There.

The San'layn overextended, reaching just a bit too far with a thrust.

She had to capitalize on this. He had not made a single mistake thus far. She needed to make him hurt, if she was to win this. The opportunity would cost her, though.

Blood for blood.

As his blade snapped out, she repositioned both her swords, lightning fast. The instant before he realized his mistake, her dagger and longblade were positioned above and below his hand.

She brought them together viciously, even as he tried to retract.

He was a hair too slow.

Anaiya took his sword and three fingers, her blades passing through glove and undead flesh easily. Her rush of triumph at his roar of fury was cut abruptly and horribly short as his other weapon, the one she had abandoned her defense of, struck her unprotected arm.

The blade went deep into her shoulder, cutting through her armor even faster than hers had sliced his flesh. It tore through her bicep, scrapped a burning line across her shoulder bone, and ripped clear through her tricep, snapping the muscles back on itself.

A small gasp was the only noise she made as he ripped the weapon free and complete, molten agony flooded her. She was used to pain, could cope with it, but this was simply too intense.

Her magical longblade slipped from deadened fingers, clattering to the ground as she staggered backwards. Hot red blood fountained from the hole, spilling down her arm in a sickening crimson stream.

The arm was useless, there was no question. It always would be, too, unless she received some advanced magical aid.

She could not think of that now. The battle was not over. She had made a bad miscalculation, a gamble that had cost her far more than she had gained. The San'layn was still deadly dangerous with one arm, while her own capabilities were severely diminished.

Through a haze of blurry pain she saw him advancing again, no longer smiling. He was not playing around any longer. Neither of them could afford it.

Mustering her energy, Anaiya hurled the knife in her good hand at him, stooping to retrieve her magical longblade. It was a far better weapon than the dagger.

There was a metallic clash as the Darkfallen batted her knife out of the air, sending it spinning over the perilously close balcony and out of sight.

Anaiya shook herself, trying to clear her head. Her bloody arm flopped uselessly.

She did not have
time to waste. She could die later; after this, it didn't matter.

She flicked her blade up in a parry, then staggered as she felt the
force behind the blow. It nearly knocked her down. The San'layn was putting all of his might behind every strike.

She would lose this. With each passing moment she grew weaker, less capable, and with each passing moment he grew stronger, more ferocious. The best she could do now was buy some time for the others.

Anaiya cast her gaze around the hallway, searching for her companions.

One of the tauren brothers was down, motionless, as his brother tore at the still corpse of their adversary in a maddened rage.

Both of Ja'avi's hyenas were dead, one still twitching, while the beastmaster and Tar'zar battered on their San'layn. As she watched, one of Tar'zar's strikes got through, the mighty blow cleaving the Darkfallen in two.

Thokk and Kurog were not faring so well against their opponent. The orcs' strength was flagging, their axe strikes slowing while the Scourge elf continued to dodge and whirl, waiting for them to tire themselves out.

Gideon was still fighting, his skull-like face locked in a rictus of angry concentration as he hurled spell after spell at the San'layn warlock. The area around their magical duel was blackened and burnt; tapestries smoldered, the walls steamed, and the very floor stones had cracked. One crackling bolt was deflected into the balcony railing with a tremendous bang, sending tremors through the floor and a spiderweb of cracks through the railing itself.
Ramgol crouched nearby, a glowing green hand pressed to his bloodied side, a slain Darkfallen at his feet. Of Tyrion, there was…

…No time to worry about. Her seven-fingered adversary was on her, fury blazing in his dead eyes as he hammered at her. Each time he lashed out, she managed to deflect it, kept just even with him. Each time their blades clashed, there was a shower of blue sparks at the point of contact, a flash of azure energy, and Anaiya suddenly noticed the sheath of dark magic around the San'layn's sword. Each time the Darkfallen's magic made contact with the power imbued in her own blade, the magical weapons reacted violently.

And then she screwed up.

Anaiya brought her sword up in a high parry, catching the San'layn's weapon as it came down. They locked eyes, his face thrown into sharp relief by the flash of blue light above them.

And something in her eyes told her she was dead.

Then he reached out and punched her.

She frowned, puzzled, as he jumped back, a triumphant leer on his face. What had he done? Why had he moved his fist around in a circle after hitting her?

Her eyes moved to his two-fingered hand, the one she had ignored once she removed the sword from it, and she realized how badly she had failed.

His hand was drenched in crimson, and there was a bloody blade extending from his wrist.
A retractable wrist blade, she thought distantly, what a good idea.

She felt a terrible uncoiling sensation deep in her gut, as something she didn't want to think about moved to fill the gap he created, and she wanted to throw up. Her sword arm felt unnaturally heavy; it was ridiculously hard to move it.

It didn't hurt. She was numb, and there was an awful cold spreading through her that was far more terrible than any fiery pain.

The San'layn raised his blade again, and she could not move to block.

But someone else did.

Tyrion was suddenly between her and the Darkfallen, catching the creature's attack with his own sword and throwing him back with a flurry of attacks. He shouted something at her, but it was oddly muffled, and she couldn't quite make it out.

It was just about over for her, but she had one card left to play.

Anaiya let her eyes fall closed, and simply concentrated on her breathing.

In and out. In and out.

She felt her chest rising and falling in time with her breaths, the unsteady, rapid pulse of her heart slowing.

In and out. In and out.

She could hear the sounds of combat, the grunts of fighters, the creaking of strained armor. She heard shouts and running feet, allies joining the fray. She heard Delan's panicked voice, the mage calling for her.

In and out. In and out.

The pain of her injuries slowly faded. Still there, but distant, as if belonging to someone else. That other person that she pushed everything onto when she did this.

In and out. In and out.

Anaiya smiled, as the calming, focusing effects of Oruuk's battle meditation fell over her.

And then her eyes flew open as she heard a sickening crunch, and a choked gurgle.

The seven-fingered San'layn's teeth were buried in Tyrion's throat, the elf's body twitching spasmodically, already going into its death throes. Blood poured from the terrible wound as the Darkfallen raised his head, and he smiled a terrible smile full of bloodied teeth that promised the same fate for her.

The San'layn dropped Tyrion's corpse, Anaiya felt someone else's distant anguish and sorrow, and then rage.

But they were not hers. Not now.

Anaiya raised her blade as the San'layn charged, his sword coming down on her again.

Their weapons slammed together, and azure energy flared up around them. She pushed against him, arm trembling as she held off his sword. The San'layn put both hands on his hilt, putting all his weight into bringing the blade down into her skull.

They both pushed, neither giving an inch as the locked weapons trembled between them. The San'layn's eyes widened as she matched his strength, something she hadn't been able to do thus far. The battle meditation allowed her the finest control over her body, pushing her muscles to their limits and far beyond.

Not without a cost, of course. Not that it mattered now.

The blue light built around them as each pushed harder, and harder. Anaiya spotted Delan and more soldiers out of the corner of her eye, running, but too far away to assist.

This was her fight.

Their swords were trembling violently, and the light had built to an almost blinding brilliance.

Their eyes met again, and they both gave one final thrust.

Anaiya's jeweled longblade cut through the San'layn's foul sword, stabbing deep into his chest. He almost had time to open his mouth in protest, before the longblade, blazing with uncontained magical energy, exploded.

The San'layn was torn apart, his form
shredding before the explosive backlash of the released magic. Anaiya was hurled violently backward, the shattered hilt of her faithful weapon leaving her hand for the last time.

She struck the balcony, hard. For a single moment she leaned against it, then the weakened stone crumbled, and she was hurled out into empty space.

She saw Delan's mouth moving, forming a spell or a cry, she did not know. Anaiya gave him a small smile before he was lost to view as she plummeted. She felt his magic catch at her, a slow fall, or levitation, perhaps, and imagined she felt the caress of Ramgol's healing spell, but she couldn't tell if it really happened or if she were merely delusional.

She was beyond feeling, almost beyond rational thought.

A good fight.

But, she had to know. Would the Lich King be defeated? Would Arthas fall?

Anaiya saw the air whip past her, but didn't feel it, didn't hear it.

She had to know. Had to, but probably wouldn't.

With some considerable effort, Anaiya moved her thumb, stroking the silver ring on her finger.

I'll see you soon.

She felt magic catch at her again, right before everything went black.



“But here she is, a little the worse for wear, but victorious!”

“That's not quite how it happened,” Anaiya grumbled, adjusting her arm in its sling as the listeners cheered, “But you should be a bard, not a mage.”

She had to admit, Delan was a good storyteller, if a bit heavy on the embellishment. She was not nearly that impressive.

The mage waved a hand airily, grinning. “We'll see about that. Have another drink.”

Half a dozen goblets were shoved her way, but Anaiya shook her head. “I had one already.”

“Oh, come on,” Delan complained, prodding her good arm, “relax a bit, for once. We won!”

And it was true. They had won. The Lich King was dead. Even though she had taken no direct action against him, Anaiya was satisfied.

Her family was avenged.

But the cost had been so, so high. So much lost, so many lives consumed, burnt out.

Tyrion was dead, slain protecting her.

Lireath had fallen during the assault on the Sunwell Plateau.

Moira had been blown off of Tempest Keep, vanishing into the Twisting Nether and as lost as if a blade had entered her heart.

Auric had succumbed to the fel addiction, and Anaiya had killed him herself.

Kaindras had died just prior to the assault on the Citadel.

Alith, the one who had created her magical blade, had been slain and raised as a death knight in the Lich King's service, and Anaiya had put him down with his own weapon, the fragments of which now lay somewhere within the Citadel.

The list went on and on, seared into her mind forever. Their names were etched into her flesh as well as her spirit, carved into the skin of her arm.

She had run out of space soon enough.

There was no victory to celebrate for them. They would never know if their sacrifices had been in vain. But Anaiya would. Even if no one else did, she would always remember the fallen.

But what was there left for her now? The Lich King was dead; she had struggled towards that goal for a decade, and now it was achieved. Everything in her 150 years before that had been annihilated, nothing left but painful memories. The old Anaiya had died with Anasterian, with Silvermoon, with her family, with Veldoran. The new Anaiya had been forged from the ashes of loss and hate, a weapon of vengeance against the Scourge.

When a weapon was no longer needed, what did it do then?

Anaiya realized everyone was watching her, waiting. They wanted her to join them, join all of Dalaran and the Horde and the Alliance in this night of celebration, this ultimate triumph.

They had won.

Ramgol, her self-appointed physician, gave her a short nod. He had saved her life inside the Citadel, and meant to keep her alive. Bedrest, he had ordered, for at least a week. Tonight was the exception, so long as she remained mostly immobile and he by her side in case something happened.

There was nothing else for the new Anaiya, and she didn't even recognize the woman she had been any longer.

But she could worry about that later. For now…

They had won.

“What the hell,” she said, and took another drink.
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#7
Remembrance

Four months prior to present events.

Anaiya watched the waves crash into the rocks she sat on, felt the spray on her cheeks. She felt the sun on her face, and the wind that rustled through her hair, which hung loosely around her shoulders for once. She felt the water rush up against her bare feet, already dripping from previous splashes. She felt the old aches that had never faded, the pains from decade-old injuries she had learned to live with, pulsing in time with her heart.

And yet, she felt nothing.

It had been months since the Lich King's fall, and so much had happened to her since then, so much had changed. And at the same time, nothing had changed.

Vainar had left, and he'd made it quite clear it was the last time. And it had hurt, had pierced her shroud of emptiness and gone straight to her ruined heart.

She had cared for him. If it would have developed into something more, given time, she did not and never would know.

It was foolish, in retrospect; he was too capricious, too quick to depart for months at a time without a word. He had never shown any real interest. Illogical, for her to think this way.

But then, that kind of feeling was rarely logical. It made her feel equal parts amused and pathetic that she could only admit these feelings, even to herself, after it was too late.

She had spent ten years mourning, ten long, lonely, bitter years. Tyrion had understood and respected that, and he had waited for her to move at her own pace. She had loved him for that. He had been her anchor, her support, the blade to protect her bow. She sometimes felt guilty about entertaining the thought of feelings for Vainar when she was with Tyrion, but she realized they would never be on the same scale. Vainar had scorned her, turned her aside and left. Tyrion had been her best friend for years, and, finally, her lover for the briefest period.

And now he too was gone. She had hoped, upon awakening after the battle for the Citadel, that his injuries hadn't been fatal, that a healer had gotten to him in time as they had for her.

But no.

He was gone, and she was right back where she had started, with the names of a dozen dead friends cut into her arm.

She fingered the empty space on her ring finger, staring out at the horizon. That had been another of her many mistakes. She had tossed away her engagement ring in a thoughtless, angry fit. She believed she had moved on, and maybe she had. But it was all she had, the only physical reminder left of her long gone fiancÃÂ.

And she had thrown it away, hurled it into a pool in Nagrand. And she was right back where she had started.

Stupid.

So many mistakes. So many costly mistakes, not only for herself, but for those she cared about.

Lireath's death had been her fault. Anaiya had not been fast enough to protect her.

Moira's death had been her fault. Anaiya had not been strong enough to stop her friend from slipping out of her grip into the void.

Auric's death had been her fault. Anaiya had not respected the power of his addiction, and it forced her to kill him.

Alith's death had been her fault. Anaiya had not been tenacious enough to turn him from the Lich King's service, and she had had to end the life of another of her friends.

The list went on. A story for each name, and Anaiya's failure to each and every one of them. But the one that she had failed the most, whose ring she no longer wore, that she had loved the most, that kept her awake every night in terror of the dreams that would come, was at the top, torn into her flesh and seared into her heart and soul.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered, the same thing she had said more times than she could count, and she couldn't tell if the wetness on her cheeks was tears or sea spray.

She could never say it enough.

She could never atone.

She looked down at the rushing waves below, how they slammed against the jagged rocks she sat on.

How easy it would be to slip into the sea.

What was the point of continuing? Everything of her life before the Lich King's coming had been annihilated, blasted to nothingness. Every waking moment after had been focused on his downfall.

And now he was destroyed.

What did she have now?

She had asked herself this question before, directly after his defeat. She had hoped something would appear, some miraculous intervention that would give her a goal, a purpose.

Nothing had appeared, and the answer to her question was the same.

Nothing.

She had nothing.

She was nothing.

She had expended everything in her efforts to bring the tyrant down. She had lost everything and everyone she had ever cared about.

Her friends were gone, one after the other, fuel for the fires of her hatred and need for vengeance.

Her family was dead, each and every one of them. She had buried them herself.

She had left the Stormshade behind in her quest for revenge. They were friends, sure, but it was nothing like what she had with those who were gone. She had only known them a matter of months. She had not experienced the same things with them.

She had never danced and sang and laughed beneath the trees of Eversong with them, as she had with Lireath.

She had never cried on their shoulders, as she had with Moira.

She had never confided and commiserated and plotted petty pranks with them, as she had with Auric.

She had never helped their wives deliver a child, as she had with Alith.

The Stormshade was still there, but the friends she had her real memories with, the people who knew who she had been, who knew what she had lost, who would hold her without judgment when it all became too much and she broke down, were gone.

She was the last of their group. There was nothing to remember them by, to remember the bond they shared, the pact they had formed, the sacrifices they had made. Only her memories remained.

Her old identity, her real identity, the Anaiya who could laugh and sing and envision living out her days with her loving husband and child, had died with them.

There was no going back, and there was nothing left ahead for the new Anaiya, whose only purpose had been the Lich King's destruction.

Without the hunt, the huntress was nothing.

So why keep going?

She edged forward, towards the raging water and broken rocks.

But something stopped her.

She did like them. They could not replace what she had lost, but they didn't try. They were something else. She loved Yvakara, and Squk, and Lok. All of them.

She knew all too well what it was like to lose a friend.

She would not do that do them. She could try for a bit longer.

She was on her feet a moment later, pulling her gear back on and shutting away her fear, her aching sorrow. Sozun has asked to see her. Perhaps he had a mission, a goal, something that could fill the void of purpose gaping within her heart.

Anaiya turned away from the setting sun, the tears and surf on her face vanishing behind a shroud of shadow.


((Probably the most introspective character I've ever written, and this was certainly one of the more depressing pieces too.))
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#8
(( I am somewhat less impressed with this entry than the previous one, but eh. What can you do?))


Sacrifices


Two months prior to present events.



Anaiya wiped a cloth across her blade, making sure to get every fleck of blood from the groove. She examined the weapon carefully before flicking her wrist, retracting the wrist blade into its concealed sheath in her gauntlet. Moving on, she scrubbed the cloth across her palm and wrist, absorbing the crimson liquid spattered on her before it had time to stain. Anaiya flexed her hand, rotating it a few times to make sure she got all of the blood off. She extended and retracted her wrist blade, testing the mechanism. Satisfied, she knelt down and placed the bloody cloth inside the corpse's armor, then pushed him into the river.

The body sank instantly, its dead weight dragging it down into the murky water and out of sight. Anaiya rose, giving her surroundings another cursory inspection from beneath her hood.

Her cover was maintained. Not that it was really necessary any longer.

Bisen was dead, permanently (so it seemed) this time, and her cult had scattered. Anaiya did not know if the information she had been feeding to Sozun had contributed to this, but she doubted it. It was highly unlikely that he would do anything to help the ones who had taken the felsworn out.

Then again, if he had needed Bisen out of the way…

It was possible, but of little consequence now.

It had been over a month since Anaiya had first entered the Catacombs, ingratiating herself where necessary and staying the fel out of the way in other places. False names and a bit of makeup worked wonders, sometimes, and for the other times, some people really needed to learn not to flap their tongues so much.

She had done some terrible things in order to be convincing, had participated in several of the Cabal's missions and helped bring about their success, even though it could bring nothing good.

Nothing good aside from information. Knowledge is power, after all.

She had tracked their movements, listened carefully when people spoke too freely, and done nothing at all to hinder them. Nothing that would give her away, and that was why she had gotten away with it. There had been another attempted infiltrator, she was sure of it, but he did not last long. Sabotage and theft were too obvious, and the trail would eventually lead back to the source.

She had passed all information she acquired on to Sozun, whenever he deigned to meet her. He had accepted her words with few comments, given her a message to give to Mistal'aerix, the other felsworn, if things became desperate, and left.

They had not. Anaiya was good at what she did. All you needed to do was listen, be careful, be convincing, and above all, watch your tongue.

She had come face to face with each of the ‘terrible' felsworn, the intimidating figures that cast their shadow over the Catacombs, and walked away untouched.

They were fools.

Bisen was a foul-mouthed husk of a woman, obsessed with herself and her power. Anaiya had stood less than ten feet from the woman once as she received the skeletal construct Anaiya and several Cabal agents had retrieved from the Ghostlands. Anaiya had fought hard to keep her expression impassive as the felsworn ranted, her arrogance and grossly swelled ego glaringly obvious, right before Bisen turned around and offered a reward for any live slaves that were brought to her.

Anaiya had not liked some of the looks she'd gotten after that.

That had not been the only time she had seen the witch, but it had been the closest they had been. Anaiya had observed some of Bisen's appearances during the plague in Booty Bay, up to and including her dramatic duel with the demon hunter and subsequent defeat. Where the prison of Bisen's soul was now Anaiya had no idea, though it certainly interested her. For now, though…

Good riddance.

As for the other felsworn, Mistal, Anaiya had had only two direct interactions with him, and had escaped suspicion on both occasions. He had been part of the group that retrieved the Scourge construct from the Ghostlands, and had given her a tour of the Catacombs hours before that.

The Cabal had been so obliging. One of them had even walked her into the Catacombs the first time, past the guards and allowing her to freely pass through any time. If Mistal hadn't been alternatively eyeing her like a slab of meat and a lab rat, she might've felt more comfortable.

It had gone so smoothly. Sozun had the information he wanted, Anaiya had the goal she needed.

But now, it was over.

She had just tied up the last loose end, and would disappear with the last of Bisen's Cabal. Her job was finished. So what now?

She did not want to return to the Stormshade. Being in the Catacombs, surrounded by those who would slay her at the slightest misstep, it was exhilarating. It was challenging. It was invigorating.

It made her feel alive again, like she hadn't felt in months.

Sozun had not contacted her in a long time, and it was extremely frustrating. Was he ignoring her because she had no further use? Was her purpose expended? It seemed unlikely; the time they had spent training, he would not have wasted it if he was going to simply cast her aside later.

Besides, she could not be ignored, because she knew things that were dangerous to Sozun, should the wrong people learn of them. She knew his weaknesses, after training to protect them. She knew how to kill the Ascendant, if it came to that. While she had no attachment to her own life, she doubted she would rest for long if Sozun was responsible for her death, and she would not allow that to happen. She would not be raised. When she finally lay down for the last time, she wanted to stay there.

There were so many people she had waited to see.

There was a noise off to Anaiya's left. Nothing major, just a quiet rustle, but she was already turning, a blade falling from her wrist brace into her palm. She stood stock-still, not moving a hair.

Two seconds passed.

Ten.

Thirty.

Two minutes. Still nothing.

Anaiya was gone a moment later, vanishing back into the cover of the darkened trees.

It could have been nothing, or it could have been someone stalking her. Either way, it was past time to be gone.

A sacrifice, Sozun called this. A necessary sacrifice on her part, to take this risk.

This was not a sacrifice. Sozun did not know what a sacrifice was.



They filtered in slowly, one by one. Alith arrived first, his face haunted and bleak. Moira came next, robes swirling and hands concealed within the cloth folds. Lireath was after her, beautiful face drawn with cold fury. Auric was close on her heels, his hands clenching and unclenching unconsciously. And last was Verana, resplendent in her shining plate, expression marred with sorrow.

So few, but it was everyone that was coming.

Everyone that was left.

Anaiya's eyes were dry now.

They were silent for a long moment, merely taking comfort each others' presence, the warmth marred by the raw absence of so many others.

Two weeks had passed since the Scourge came, and their wounds were still as raw as the moment they had been ripped into being. Each of them knew there were no words they could offer the others.

“And now we are but six,” Verana said softly. “So many lost.”

“We must be about this quickly,” Auric said, rolling his shoulders, “there is much to do.”

“There is,” Moira agreed, and Anaiya knew the magistrix held to her outward appearance of serenity by a very narrow margin, “but this is equally important.”

“I don't see how,” Lireath spat, pacing back and forth like a trapped hunting cat, “there are still uncounted numbers of the undead
filth inside our city.”

“We have to hold on to some things,” Alith whispered, brushing his unkempt hair out of his face, “we can't lose it all.”

Anaiya closed her eyes as Lireath snorted mirthlessly. “I'm surprised to hear you say that,” she told the smith.

Verana's eyes flashed angrily. “Enough,” she commanded. “We cannot be fighting each other. That is not why we are here, and you know it, Lireath. That is
never why we have come here.” She gestured around them at the ruined pavilion.

Lireath's shoulders slumped, and Anaiya's lip trembled.

They had come here to celebrate, to reminisce, to simply live and enjoy life. Once a month they had gathered, but there had been so many more. Their families came too; their husbands, their wives, their children, their friends. It had been an occasion they all looked forward to, a gathering of all the friends they had made over the years. Over thirty people came on a regular basis: Alith's wife and daughter, Lireath's friends, Verana's husband, more friends…

Kaylith. His entire family. Wife. Children.

Anaiya's family, too.

Vareyn.

Veldoran.

Only six remained.

Anaiya felt Moira's hand on her shoulder, the mage giving her a comforting squeeze. They were all looking at her, and Anaiya felt wetness on her cheeks again.

“I'm sorry,” she said quietly, her voice raspy.

“No apology is necessary,” Moira replied, equally quiet.

They all knew what she was going through.

Almost. None of them had lost…

Anaiya swallowed, her hand moving towards her stomach, and Lireath caught her wrist.

“Don't,” her friend warned her. Alith looked away.

Verana drew herself upright and her eyes were harder than Anaiya had ever seen them. “We came here for a reason,” she said, voice strong and clear. “Our home is in ruins. Our people are dead, our friends, our families, are dead.”

Fists clenched all around, eyes closed, and shoulders shook.

“There is nothing we can do about that,” Verana continued, the paladin turning to look at each of them in turn. “We cannot bring them back. Our grief cannot bring them back. It does not help them.” Her gaze fixed on Anaiya, unapologetic and stern. “None of them would want us to wither to nothingness because of them. They would not want us to lie down on their graves and die.” Her eyes tracked across to Alith, who held her gaze.

“We cannot rebuild our home, or our people,” Verana said, folding her arms behind her. “But there is something we can do.”

Heads tilted all around, and Anaiya saw a glint of anger in Verana's eyes that she had never seen in the paladin's visage.

“We can avenge them,” the paladin said clearly. “We can drive the Scourge from our home, drive them to the ends of the earth, and
destroy them.”
They all stilled, and a small smile played across Lireath's face.

“What, exactly,” Moira said slowly, frowning, “are you suggesting?”

“Vengeance,” Verana answered, calm and composed, “an oath of vengeance.”

“And what does that entail?” Auric asked warily.

“We devote ourselves to the Scourge's destruction. We put our grief behind us and use our hate and anger to bring the fallen prince down. Everything else is secondary.” Verana stared around at them. “What we had is gone. We fill the void left in its place with righteous justice, with
revenge. The six of us, we are stronger now; we survived. We can make a difference. This is how we will help our people. This is how we will honor our fallen. This is how we will avenge them.”

“You ask us to walk a dark path, Verana,” Moira said, brow furrowed with worry. “Especially dangerous for you.”

The paladin shook her head, and there was a strange look in her eyes. “We cannot ignore the wrongs done to us, Moira. Together, we can make them pay.”

“But what you ask will-”

“I will do it,” Anaiya said suddenly, and all eyes turned to her, some pleased, some shocked. “I will swear.”

Lireath nodded. “I shall swear as well,” she affirmed.

Auric was silent for a moment, then nodded. “As will I.”

“Think about what you are doing,” Moira insisted, the petite elf drawing herself upright. “You are swearing to a crusade with no end in sight, one that will lead down a very dark path. Suppressing your grief will not rid you of it!”

“What else can we do?” Anaiya whispered, and the mage looked down at her. “There is nothing here for me. For us.”

And there wasn't. Everyone was gone, and it tore at her to remember it, made her want to curl up and cry once again.

She had to do something. If she stayed inactive for any longer, dwelling on her pain, it would consume her.

“This is what I have to do,” she told Moira, and the mage nodded slowly, still frowning.

“Then I shall join you as well.”

Verana stripped off her plate gauntlets, extending a calloused hand towards the center of their circle. Her other hand draw a short ceremonial dagger from her belt. “Come forward, then.”

They all approached, Lireath's hand on the small of Anaiya's back to steady her. They formed a small circle, facing Verana. The paladin had an almost feverish light in her eyes as she spoke.

“We shall make them pay. The Scourge, the human prince and his followers, for each drop of our blood spilled a thousand of them shall die screaming.
“We will not
forget the wrongs done us. We will not forgive. Blood for blood. To the ends of the earth and the end of time, we shall hound them. No matter the cost, no matter the odds. If we must spit in the eyes of the gods themselves, we shall not stop until Arthas is dead.”

Verana drew the blade across her palm, and a line of crimson began to flow down her hand. “By the blood of the fallen, the blood of the Highborne, so do we swear.”

She offered the blade to Anaiya.

Anaiya looked down at the blade, at Verana's blood dripping down the edge.

If she did this, there was no going back.

She looked back at the empty, desolate seats behind her.

There was nothing to go back to.

“By the blood of the Highborne,” she whispered, “by the blood of our fallen.” The blade bit into her palm, and she felt nothing as a crimson line appeared across the length of her hand. She felt Lireath gently pry the knife from her hand as Anaiya watched the blood seep down her wrist. She heard each of them recite the same words, heard a slight hiss from Moira as the dagger cut her, and then Verana had the blade again. She extended her bloodied hand towards the center of their circle, and they each mimicked her, clasping cut hands together. Their blood mixed, swirling in crimson rivulets along their grips.

“So have we sworn,” Verana said, “and so are we bound.” Her hand flared with the power of the Light then, but it was a tainted color, stained with a bloody pallor. Their wounds healed, leaving each of them a thin white line and hands again stained with the blood of their friends.

“I only hope we have not made a terrible mistake,” Moira murmured.



They had made a mistake that day.

Trusting Verana had been a mistake, though they could not have known it at the time. Trusting Verana had led each and every one of them to their deaths, and Anaiya was sure her own was not far off.

It was not because of their deaths that Anaiya blamed Verana; they had all known how their paths would end when they swore. No, it was because of what the paladin had done after she had fallen.

If she did nothing else with the rest of her life, though, Anaiya wished she could make Verana pay. But for now, she had to be going. It was past time that she was gone, and her old friend was well beyond her reach at this point.

She turned, black cloak swirling, and vanished back into Duskwood's darkened boughs.
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#9
Long time no see.
Funny story; this actually came about because two of my characters (Zalthiel and Anaiya) were in a story line together, and I was going to be away for a week. To explain both of their absences, I had the pleasure of concocting this little scene.
Have fun.





Hunters in the Dark


One month prior to present events




It was getting late.

The dim rays filtering through Ashenvale's high boughs were waning rapidly. Only a few beams of amber light still shone through.

The more they faded, the smaller her chances got. And when the last light died, Anaiya had a sneaking suspicion she would be going with it.

Her steps made no noise as she moved through the trees, not a whisper of sound escaping her. She excelled in this field; though these were not the forests of Quel'thalas, the principles were the same. She was a predator, efficient and deadly. There was no arrogance to her thoughts, only fact and confidence.

And yet, her prey this time was a different breed altogether.

And the tables could very easily turn, and leave Anaiya as the prey.

She almost checked her weapon again, but refrained. The bow was as reliable as it had always been. The string was newly replaced. The arrows were perfect. She had already done multiple confirmations. Anything else now was simply nervous motion, motion that could easily get her spotted and slain.

This was not her first hunt, or her second, or her fiftieth. She shouldn't be so on edge.

But she had never hunted anyone quite like this.

The forest around her was utterly silent. No wind disturbed the leaves, no birds flitted between trees. It was as if all the animals had abandoned the area, fleeing some unseen terror that Anaiya was missing. The stillness was unnatural.

She advanced, each step slow and careful. Heel down first into an empty patch of ground, then roll the rest of the foot. Scan area. Repeat.

The trail was hardly difficult to follow. There was a path of withered brown grass winding through the trees and up a hill. Bushes had rotted and decayed seemingly at random, and the flowers and blossoms were simply desiccated husks.

The forest was dying around her quarry.

Not only that, but the scent her target gave off...

Anaiya had a strong stomach, but this made her gorge rise anyway. The coppery tang of blood, dried and fresh. The fetid scent of rotting flesh. The reek of a decomposing corpse.

Anaiya smelled death.

And then she crested the hill, just as the last amber ray of sunlight vanished, plunging the forest into twilight.

Her target was below.

Anaiya could see the back of a cowled cloak, hood drawn up to conceal the wearer's face. Dark metal armor obscured the rest of the slim, decidedly female figure, culminating in a mailed skirt divided for riding. A long, two-handed sword hung across her back, though it was made of no material Anaiya recognized; it almost looked to be made of glass. A sickly green energy pulsed periodically along its edge.

The figure was astride a horse, or at least what appeared to be one. It was garbed in armor of similar design to its rider. Skulls hung from the saddle, their frozen grins skewered by cruel iron barbs. Great chunks of the mount's unarmored flanks and neck were missing, skin peeling away in horrific strips. The animated facsimile of a horse tossed its head, and Anaiya caught sight of an eye, glowing a bright blue in the gloom of the forest.

The woman was still in the center of the clearing, sitting tall and proud upon her undead steed, but as immobile as stone. And yet, Anaiya felt her guts twist as the unfamiliar sensation of fear touched her.

This woman was a threat. She had threatened the clan; Yvakara, Makra, Tazzul, Faelion, Lok, all of them. Though she had merely stood by and watched as her minions caused havoc, Anaiya knew that to cut off the head would end their problems. She also knew the others would not approve, that Lok may even have ordered her not to go. That was why she had left without notice. Risks were something she was used to. Stalking was something she was used to. Killing was something she was used to.

Sometimes, sacrifices had to be made. This Kaldorei, Zalthiel, had to die.

Ever so slowly, Anaiya lifted her bow, an arrow already knocked. Moving but a fraction of an inch at a time, painstakingly slowly, she drew the fletching back to her ear, calmly and carefully drawing a bead on the frozen rider below. One shot would not end it, but it had to count. The mailed skirt Zalthiel wore began just above her hips, where it connected with her breastplate. The plate would stop her shaft, but the mail presented an easier target. If Anaiya could hit the Kaldorei at the base of the spine, exposed as she was on the horse, it would at least slow her long enough to fire off more damaging shafts.

She had a bead.

Anaiya inhaled. Her hands were steady, not shaking a hair.

She could do this.

She exhaled and straightened her index and middle fingers simultaneously, releasing the shaft. The arrow whistled through the air, and she felt a rush of triumph as-

The Kaldorei leaned backward, and the arrow struck the back of her breastplate instead of the vulnerable mail, pinging away harmlessly, and suddenly Anaiya did not feel so triumphant. Nonetheless, she was already knocking another arrow as the death knight casually wheeled her horse around to face her attacker.

Much of the knight's face was swathed in deep shadow, but Anaiya could see her glowing eyes, burning brightly in the darkness of her hood. They threw a faint light on her lips, which were curving in a faint smile.

Anaiya shivered. She could barely see into the gloom, but she was quite certain someone had taken a knife or twelve to Zalthiel's face; the little she could see of the knight's lips was horrifically flayed and shredded. Then she spoke.

“Not even an introduction? I'm almost...disappointed.”

The knight's voice was faintly amused, though it was hard to decipher beneath the characteristic menacing echo.

Anaiya loosed the shaft, and Zalthiel's hand snapped out. A crackling whip of dark energy arced from her palm to Anaiya's arrow, catching the wooden bolt and hurling it away.

By the time the arrow bounced off the ground ten feet away, Anaiya was already gone, vanishing back into the undergrowth with Zalthiel's cold laughter echoing in her ears.

She needed a new angle. She would need several very good shots to do more than just annoy her quarry, and that would require not standing right in front of her plinking away at her impenetrable armor.

For now, though, she needed distance, and a plan. She kept moving, trying to stay as quiet as possible while still keeping a decent pace and running through a mental inventory of her equipment. Little that would be of use, but perhaps...

Hooves.

Anaiya slowed, crouching slightly. She was being followed, of course. Just more quickly and directly than she had anticipated. The knight must not have had any trouble at all following her (decidedly hasty) trail, which meant she had not much time at all.

The irony of becoming the hunted so soon was not lost on her.

She looked around, searching for a suitable vantage point, and barely finished positioning herself within a shadowed copse when the knight's deathcharger trotted into the clearing. Anaiya didn't waste a moment this time, loosing a rapid salvo of three shots as Zalthiel's head began to swivel towards her. The first arrow found purchase in the tiny vulnerable area between the pauldron and breastplate, another whistled within a few inches of the knight's neck, and the third pinged away from the armor harmlessly.

Zalthiel glanced down at the shaft protruding from her with something akin to faint annoyance, but certainly not pain. She looked back up at Anaiya, who ducked back behind a tree as the knight's hand rose.

Something slammed hard into the trunk Anaiya sheltered behind, shaking loose some leaves, and then Anaiya was off again.

Again she ran and again she hid, this time by the edge of an abrupt drop, with running water below, bow ready for when the deathcharger came trampling through the forest after her. And it did, but Anaiya froze.

There was no rider.

Half a second later Anaiya was moving again as the glass-like runeblade screamed through the space she had just occupied, slamming into the tree and making a frighteningly large gash. Zalthiel pulled it free without effort, turning to stroll languidly after Anaiya as she rolled away. Anaiya struck out with her bow, purely out of reflex, jabbing up at the knight's face. Zalthiel batted the weapon aside with a single swipe, tearing it from Anaiya's grasp and sending it spinning away into a bush.

Anaiya had counted on the momentum of the swing to make the knight spend a second to recover, so she could draw her blades and attack, but Zalthiel flicked the runeblade right back at Anaiya as if it weighed no more than a piece of wood. Anaiya simply fell backward, hitting the ground and rolling away again. Her swords finally cleared their sheaths, weaving in a defensive pattern as she rose, and well for her that she did, as Zalthiel's runeblade hammered down at her again. She backpedaled, blades working as fast as she could move them to keep Zalthiel's runeblade away from her flesh.

The night elf was fast, and strong. Anaiya could just about match her for speed, but she was forced to redirect and dodge her foe's attacks, rather than flatout blocking.

So be it. This was still winnable.

They exchanged a flurry of strikes; jab to counter to slash to riposte to pommel strike and all over again in the space of half a dozen seconds. Anaiya's arms had gone numb from the force of Zalthiel's attacks.

Zalthiel's blade struck high, and Anaiya saw her opening. One sword moved to deflect the runeblade above, and the other dove for the death knight's midsection. If this worked...

Obviously that would have been too easy, though, for Zalthiel dropped a hand from the extended hilt of her runeblade, pointing at Anaiya, and a roiling ball of shadow erupted from her palm, striking Anaiya in the chest and hurling her backward. She landed dangerously close to the edge of the drop.

Anaiya tried to suck in a breath through her burning lungs, choking. Pain was coursing through her body, and though her lungs felt as if they were on fire, the skin touched by the death blast was colder than she had ever been. Hot or cold, though, both were agonizing, and she hunched in on herself, struggling to get to her feet before the knight killed her.

Zalthiel did not take advantage of the opening, however. The Kaldorei merely stared down at her, as though examining something foul on the bottom of her boot.

“I suppose I shouldn't have expected more,” the death knight mused, pacing a circle around Anaiya like some giant hunting cat. “After all, the rest of your clan was rather...pathetic.”

Anaiya stilled, shooting the Kaldorei a hateful look as she focused on bringing her breathing back under control.

“Which is rather odd,” Zalthiel continued, following her path and letting the tip of her runeblade draw a circle in the ground, “because of how defiant they were.” Green energy pulsed along the blade, and the grass started to wither almost instantly. “So weak in body, but so strong of mind and will?”

Anaiya had her breathing under control, and was confident in her ability to move unhindered by her injury. She feigned panting for breath, though, as her hands tightened around her sword hilts.
Zalthiel's sword was suddenly at Anaiya's hip, and with a vicious jerk she ripped it down Anaiya's leg, shredding the armor and flesh alike. Unable to hold it in, Anaiya cried out, sobbing for breath as horrible pain seared through her. This was more intense than anything she'd felt in a long time, more intense than it should have been. She rolled over, gasping, and looked down at her wound.

The gash was long, ragged, and deep. It stretched from her hip down to her ankle, and the armor had been shredded all the way down. Even as she watched the flesh began to blacken right before her eyes as necrosis set in, brought on by the shadow magic on the runeblade. Anaiya tore her eyes away from her rotting flesh, struggling not to howl as the pain intensified.

Zalthiel chuckled, and the sound sent a shiver down Anaiya's spine. “I want to find out exactly how strong your will is.”

Enough was enough.

Anaiya spun, rearing up and slashing at Zalthiel even as the witch's magic snaked into her again, chilling her to the bone. Anaiya's blade cut a deep gash just below the night elf's eye, tearing her hood back at the same time, and Anaiya's blood ran even colder than the icy magic flowing through her veins.

Zalthiel's face was a mutilated ruin, a hideous wreck of flesh scarred almost beyond recognition. Jagged and ugly lines crisscrossed and intersected at random intervals, turned sickly shades of black and blue due to necrosis. Her lips were in much the same state, though pulled back in a snarl of fury. They revealed her teeth, which were foul and bloodstained. Each had been filed to a razor edge, displaying an insane, sick grin. Her gums were a gory mess, as her teeth tore through them each time she closed her mouth. And now that Anaiya had a closer look, she could she that Zalthiel's eyes did not, in fact, glow blue.

The night elf's eye sockets were torn and empty, and the flickering blue ghostlight was all that remained, burning with such fury and hatred that Anaiya almost quailed.

Zalthiel lashed out, blasting Anaiya away from her with another ball of death magic. Before Anaiya had even completely hit the ground a crackling whip of energy was dragging her back to the raging death knight who slammed her knee into the blood elf's chest.

Anaiya knew she was going to die. Whatever magic the witch had used was coursing through her, and she felt weaker by the second. Her leg was useless; even if she survived, she might lose it to rot. Several of her ribs had been broken as well.

She had to take the knight out, or it would have all been for nothing.

Zalthiel reached down and caught her by the throat, lifting Anaiya effortlessly into the air.

“I am going to skin you,” Zalthiel hissed, “and keep you alive to see it. And then I am going to give your flayed hide to your friends, and-”

Anaiya didn't let the b***h finish. She drew the knife from the back of her belt, the knife she had been saving for a certain someone, and slammed the white-glowing dagger into Zalthiel.

The death knight screamed in real pain this time, dropping Anaiya and staggering backward as the blessed weapon seared her undead flesh.

Anaiya managed to remain upright, and thrust her hand forward, wrist blade extending, aimed for Zalthiel's throat.

The wily witch was not so easily between, though, and, ignoring the holy dagger in her side, slammed both her palms into Anaiya's stomach, and unleashed another blast of energy.

For a second, Anaiya's vision flashed white. Literally blinded by pain, she felt herself leave the ground and fly backward from the force of the blast, and she felt a kind of distant panic as she remembered where she had been standing.

Anaiya went over the cliff's edge and down, the wind buffeting her momentarily before she struck the water with a loud and painful splash. Submerged, she found she simply couldn't muster the effort to reach the surface. Her body screamed for air, but the pain from her injuries blocked everything else out.

Dimly, she was reminded of another failed hunt, one were she underestimated her quarry and overestimated herself. The thought amused her, a little. But there wouldn't be anyone to pull her out of the fire this time.

She reached out feebly for something, anything, but touched only water.

Then she blinked, and everything went dark.



What's it mean if my thread has two stars?
Come on now.
This is a
t least three star writing.
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#10
(( I only now realize what a mistake it was to pick Anya Eversong as the ranger's name when my protagonist's name is so similar.
Bad, baaaad idea.
Anyway, since there wasn't a flashback/reflection last installment (you know, the whole point of the thread), this entire post is one. Yay. ))




Fever


One moth prior to present events



She was floating. Suspended, somewhere. Weightless, just drifting.

It was dark. She couldn't see. There was no panic because of the blindness, though; she felt calm, peaceful.

She was warm. Not the warmth of sunlight, or fire; it was hard to describe. Just an ambient glow that made her feel content and comfortable.

How easy it would be to simply drift away here.

And yet somehow, she knew this was wrong. She blinked, and everything came into focus.

Eversong was as beautiful as ever.

Anaiya knelt, fingers tracing through the deep depressions in the ground.

Tracks. Footprints.

Troll footprints. A lone male, by the looks of it, and a big one at that. Recent, too.

She brushed her hair back, following the trail with her eyes. Odd. Her hair seemed...too long. She hadn't worn it so long in years.

She stood, and there was no pain. She had no injuries, currently, but she knew she should be feeling the aches of old wounds, the faint sting of the ever-present scar across her chest.

And yet, at the same time, she had never suffered any kind of serious injury. She was competent, strong, and able.

And she was on the hunt.

Anaiya moved off along the trail, bow ready. She had trolls to kill, and a point to prove.

She had never been quite this far to the east before; it was troll country, and Ranger Anya had forbid her to enter. She was 'not ready, too inexperienced'.

Yet, Ranger Laethan had already taken Veldoran out here, had even let the idiot run loose for a while, and he'd gotten his first troll kill. Veldoran had been insufferable ever since, taking every opportunity to rub it in Anaiya's face.

“Why hasn't Anya taken
you out yet?” He would ask, self-satisfied, slap-worthy grin fixed in place. “Is it too much for you to handle?”

Smug bastard.

She was just as good as he was. Anya was just being overly cautious. She was a good teacher, the
best, but she took things awfully slowly sometimes, which was annoying. If Veldoran could take his first troll kill already, so could Anaiya.

Anya wouldn't have to know. Though it would probably be rather difficult to trick the wily ranger, it would be a good challenge. She just couldn't wait to make Veldoran eat his words. She could outfit almost anyone in her graduating class. Except Veldoran, maddeningly, but they drew almost every time.

Besides, Anya probably exaggerated their cunning anyway.

The trees had begun to darken now; the foliage thicker with vines strung between the branches. Anaiya slowed her pace, thumbing the fletching of the shaft nocked on her bow.

The woods were utterly silent. No rustle of branches, no chirping of animals.

The trail was still clear as day, though. As if the troll had been making heavy, deliberate steps...

Anaiya paused.

Perhaps this hadn't been the
best idea...

Then the troll dropped out of the tree before her, and Anaiya suddenly had a very sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

The thing was
enormous; a hulking mass of bulging muscles and filthy green flesh that towered over her. It leered at her, wide mouth full of jagged, yellowed teeth, and took a step forward. Anaiya's training finally kicked in. Her bow came up, bowstring coming back, and then the troll's massive throwing axe was screaming through the air. It struck her bow near the middle, and the wood simply evaporated where the axe touched. The axe tore a deep gash in Anaiya's arm as it spun past, vanishing into the trees behind her. Splinters sprayed her and she staggered back, fumbling for her sword. The troll just watched her, grinning wickedly and flexing its giant hands as she brought her sword between them.

The thought of fleeing made her waver for a moment, and then the foliage rustled again, and one troll became four. Three more emerged from the trees, and now she was surrounded on all sides.

Anaiya knew she was dead. She tried to swallow the panic roaring through her mind, her hands beginning to shake. It couldn't
really end like this, could it? Soon so?

Yet, it was her own arrogance that had damned her.

The troll before her laughed; a nasty, guttural sound. He advanced, saying something in his primitive barbaric tongue.
She was
not going to die as troll meat. She would not.

Anaiya stepped forward with a quick slash, groin-to-throat, which the troll neatly dodged. She pursued him, flowing smoothly through the sword forms she had mastered. Effective against a combatant who would stand and fight, it was useless as the troll continued to dance just out of reach.

He stopped, saying something else in his primitive language that made his companions chuckled. Anaiya lunged then in his moment of distraction, sword stabbing out. The troll jerked back, but she managed to draw a line of blood from his arm. Her swell of triumph deflated rapidly a moment later as the troll's mocking expression vanished, replaced by a snarl of anger. He was inside her guard before she could react, and she
almost got her sword around in time. Almost wasn't enough, however.

Two quick blows sent her weapon spinning away and threw her to the ground, stars flashing across her vision. Anaiya rolled, scrabbling at the ground for purchase as the troll's shadow fell across her. She struck out, but the brute deflected her blows easily as he knelt down. The troll straddled her, collecting both of her wrists in a single giant fist and pinning them above her head. His companions hooted and jeered as her captor settled down on her waist, trapping her legs with his. His breath was hot and fetid on her face, his foul musk almost overwhelming at this range. The troll leered at her again, and this close she could see every yellowed, blood-stained tooth in his cruel smile. Its heavy body pressed down into her, and then the beast's free hand began to
explore.

Anaiya bucked and writhed, panic and dread fueling her efforts. Death was horrible enough to contemplate, but this-

The troll's clawed hand fastened about the neck of her armor, pulling down, and Anaiya opened her mouth to finally scream.

Then an arrow burst out of the troll's eye, and he collapsed on top of her. Stunned, Anaiya stared uncomprehendingly at the wicked arrowhead inches from her face, dripping blood and brain matter.

The other three trolls, while startled, were not immobilized, but barely had time to lift their axes before a figure burst out of the upper foliage, long cloak billowing behind her. Mid-air another shaft left the string of her long bow, drilling squarely into the forehead of a second troll. Ranger Anya hit the ground in a perfectly controlled roll, coming upright and spinning her bow before her. The two throwing axes thudded into her weapon, sticking in the haft that was obviously far sturdier than Anaiya's had been. The elven Ranger came fully upright, tossing her bow away smoothly as the two remaining trolls charged her. Anya's twin blades were suddenly in her hands, as if the Ranger hadn't bothered wasting the time to draw them, and she threw herself forward towards the hulking trolls.

Anaiya watched, craning her neck to follow her teacher, fear forgotten in favor of utter awe in the face of the lethal grace and skill of Anya Eversong. The Ranger spun like a dervish into her two opponents, both of whom vastly outclassed her in size and strength. Undeterred, Anya's blades and cloak whirled in completely opposite patterns, swords scything down one of the trolls with frightening ease. Anya simply danced around his axe, blades flashing across his throat and sides, the red lines that spelled his doom only appearing after she had spun past. Her cloak snapped and flapped, disorienting the troll at Anya's back and snaring his weapon as he struck at her. A quick about-face and roll neatly disarmed him as the Ranger's cloak tangled around the axe and tore it from his grasp. One lightning-fast slash and the troll's head was sagging backwards, throat slashed almost all the way through.

Anya's bow hit the ground with a loud thud a moment later. Both trolls had been slain in less than five seconds.

Anaiya's vision grew blurry, for some reason, as she staggered upright. Veldoran came out of the trees, looking worried and helping her push past the dead troll as Anya swung around, mouth set in a grim, disappointed line. Anaiya's throat tightened as Veldoran tugged on her arm urgently.

A moment later she was spinning back around again, blades snapping out to deflect a pair of throwing axes that came whirling out of the trees. The third axe, however, went wide of Anya's guard.

It did not, however, go wide of Anaiya.

She saw the weapon coming, spinning towards her almost lazily. There was no time to react, though, no time for Veldoran to pull her out of the way. After all that, all of Anya's and Veldoran's efforts, she was still going to die.

What a joke.

Then the axe struck her, burying itself squarely in her chest. She saw Anya's cloak and blades begin whirling again as a fresh trio of trolls burst from the trees, bearing down on the Ranger even as Anaiya's vision tilted crazily. The next thing she knew, she was on her back staring up at the sky.

There was no pain, no discomfort, no alarm. She couldn't even feel the ground beneath her; she was floating again as her vision faded. She saw Veldoran leaning over her, terrified, mouth moving. The words came out slowly, but not in his voice.


“Hold on, Anaiya,” she heard faintly, and it was Yvakara's voice, not Veldoran's, and it was not the ground that cradled her now, but strong arms, and not the grass she felt, but coarse tauren fur. “Hold on.”

So strange. Events overlapping, from so long ago, and...

Yvakara's arms tightened around her, and then everything faded again.
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#11
((I only just now realized how inaccurate saying "X months prior to present events" is. Silly me.
Also, I jump around a lot. This is not taking place the day after the previous post.
Fair warning: this lady is pretty freaking depressing, to write as well as to read.))



Memorial Day

Present Day


There was no more putting it off. She had to get this over with.

Anaiya exhaled softly, looking off into the woods. She was dressed in her old Farstrider uniform; the familiar feel of the fabric, the subtle greens and browns, the sturdy, worn leather boots...

She wasn't surprised anymore that the rangers of Farstrider Retreat kept the gear for her; it was tradition, now: they expected to see her group on this of the year, every year.

She was sure they also expected the group size to dwindle every year. And it did. Originally it had been seven of them, seven of them visiting every year after the Scourge invasion. The next year it had been six. Then it had been four. After that it had been just Tyrion and Anaiya for two years.

And now it was just Anaiya, and she didn't know if she could do it alone.

She had seen the pitying, compassionate looks beneath the salutes of Selondra and some of the other veteran rangers as she arrived, alone. Their exchange had been brief, clipped, as Anaiya collected her old uniform. She hadn't wanted to dwell, to give Selondra any more reason to think less of her old commander. So she nodded her thanks and acknowledgment, and disappeared into the woods.

As she walked, Anaiya paid only the barest attention to her surroundings. She had fallen instinctively into the silent, stalking gait her father had taught her; heel first, roll toes, step again. Not a whisper of sound escaped as she glided between the trees. Just like old times.

Except now, the silence was deafening; it pressed down on her like a physical weight, a silent but ever-present reminder. Before it had been Lireath, Moira, Auric, Alith, Verana, Tyrion, and herself. They had spoken quietly, and made no effort to move stealthily. It had been somber, but they had all been together again, for something other than war, and it had been...nice. They shared in their grief, and supported each other.

And over the years, as their numbers dwindled, the mood grew more cold, more bitter, less...of a companionship. Near the end, when it was just Alith, Verana, and Tyrion, they had barely spoken. Alith was gaunt and withered, withdrawn into his own private thoughts. Tyrion stood by her, as always, but even he was weary and silent. And Verana...Verana had changed the most. They never spoke of it (none had dared to broach the subject since her changes), but the Light no longer answered Verana's call. Her power had waned as she grew more angry, more ruthless, more cruel. Her light had flickered and waned, and she had seized the opportunity when the Blood Knights harnessed the Naaru. Though she could again wield the Light, Verana was no longer a paladin.

Their fellowship was finished, and Anaiya had mourned it that day.

The next year, Tyrion had carried Anaiya out here, after Verana had shattered every bone in her leg. They had mourned Alith and Verana then, though their bodies still walked in the Lich King's grasp. Tyrion and Anaiya had sat together that year. Together, but alone.

Anaiya looked down at the handcrafted sign, the headstone, in her grip.

And now, she was alone. Truly alone.

She stopped, staring at the last tree, the one with the split trunk and the seven lines cut into its bark. Anaiya swallowed. There was no one else to accompany her. This was now her duty alone.

She stepped into the clearing.

It was the same as it ever was: the trees and crimson leaves glittered in the light of the sun, beautiful as ever in Quel'thalas's eternal autumn. The ground was clear of debris: leaves, bark, signs of animal passage...Anaiya would have to thank Selondra and her rangers on her way back, for keeping it so clean. That was nice of her.

Anaiya exhaled softly, then focused on the objects she came here for, and the objects she had avoided looking at.

The graves. Twenty-six of them, in three neat rows, each marked by a hand-crafted headstone. A simple wooden board, shaped by a carving knife and inscribed with a few words each.

She hadn't had the coin for marble stones, and digging the grave was...a personal thing. Four were empty; simply headstones over empty ground and empty caskets. Alith's had been filled after his final death at her hands. Vareyn had been annihilated utterly by a Scourge sorcerer, her body blasted to nothing. Moira had fallen into the void during the assault on Tempest Keep, and Verana was dead to Anaiya, even if her husk still stalked the icy northern wastes.

The last empty tomb...

Anaiya shook her head, and walked to the third row, the five most recent graves. She stared at the headstones, fingers trailing over the carved letters, the names. Her fellowship. Her friends. Her surrogate family. The last remnants of her old life, her final ties to the person she had been before the Scourge.

She reached the end of the line and placed the headstone she carried aside gently. Then she lifted the shovel she'd brought, and began to dig.

Shovelful after shovelful of dirt flew into a steadily growing pile, as her muscles began to burn and the light of the sun began to wane. She ignored all of it. Her mind was blank of everything except the task before her. It was easier that way. She shoveled and shoveled, heedless of the dirt sticking to her, of the sweat pouring down her, and of the water in her eyes that was not sweat.

And eventually it was done. Anaiya climbed out of the hole in the ground, the three foot wide, five foot deep pit. She didn't know how long it had taken, and it didn't matter. All she knew was that her body was shaking, there was a sharp pain in her chest, and the sun had advanced considerably through the sky. She stared down at the empty grave, chest heaving.

Then she began to shovel all the dirt back in.

She didn't have a casket or a body. In the chaos of the fight at Icecrown Citadel, his body had vanished, try as she had to find it. He would have understood.

By the end the sun had nearly set, and the muscles of her arms were on fire. The earth was smooth again, but brown instead of green, and Anaiya stepped forward, laying her shovel aside. With a heave, she buried the base of the headstone in the ground at the head of the empty grave. She touched the words she had carved into the surface:


Tyrion
A warrior of circumstance, not choice.
Died for me and for us all.
Rest easy, for our work is finally done.
You waited so long for me. I am sorry.
May the sun always shine on you, my friend.



Her hand tensed on the wood, and it creaked faintly. “Goodbye, Tyrion,” she whispered, somehow managing to speak around the lump in her throat. “I'm sorry.”

She moved down the line slowly, touching the words she had carved for each of them, and her shoulders began to shake with something other than fatigue.



Verana
Warrior of the Light, Victim of Vengeance
I will remember you not as what you have become,
But as you used to be:
My confessor, my ally, my friend.
I wish you peace, whatever awaits you.




Alith
A smith without peer, a father without compare.
The greatest of your blades used its dying breath
To destroy our foes on the day of the Great Enemy's fall.
There is no more fitting mark to your legacy.
I hope you join your daughters, my friend,
And are happy once again.




Auric
Life was unfairest to you above all,
Pitting your mind against a foe you had no hope of victory against.
Yet in the end, you triumphed against the odds.
Thank you.
May whatever comes next be kinder to you than this life.




Moira
My friend, my teacher, forgive me.
For you I failed most of all,
and to you I gifted the cruelest of ends.
You were the kindest and wisest of us,
And traded my life for yours.
I wish you the tranquility you so desired.




Lireath
My greatest friend, my sister of body and mind if not of blood,
Always were we together, and my heart aches for your absence.
You made the sacrifice that should have been mine,
And I have wept for you everafter.
Wait for me in fields of sunlight, my sister,
I will join you someday.




Her shoulders were heaving with silent, repressed sobs, but there were still so many left. She reached the second row and paused for a steadying breath before she continued.

Her family was here. Her friends, those who had no family remaining to mourn them, were here too. Each had their own grave, their own inscription.

Her companions had followed her out here once, which had started the whole tradition. They had earned their places among her family, her friends.

She walked among them, reading each and every one again, though she knew them all by heart. They were seared into her mind, into her soul, but she read them anyway, touched each of the headstones, and mouthed a silent apology.

Violent tremors were wracking her body by the time she finished the second row, fingers bleeding where she had dug furrows in Vareyn's gravestone.

The first row was always the worst.

Anaiya paused, hands trembling, as she looked.

There were only two headstones in this row, but these two were more terrible and daunting than all the others put together. She felt physical pain lance through her chest, and Anaiya put a trembling hand to her heart.

There was an empty, open hole on the far side of the two headstones. A grave waiting for an occupant. Tyrion had always hated it. They had all hated it. But she had insisted, and it remained.

It was, after all, her choice where she wished to be buried.

Anaiya approached slowly, and read the first headstone, the words playing in her head like a mantra even as her eyes fell upon the physical versions.


Veldoran
Comrade. Rival.
Friend. Lover.
Husband.
All these things you were to me, and more.
There is nothing I can write or say that can express my feelings.
I miss you.
I weep for my mistakes.
I weep for you.
I weep for our son, and the life he never had.
I will find you someday, wherever you are, if you can find it within yourself to forgive me.
For I cannot.
I am so sorry.




She felt as if her heart was going to explode. “I'm so sorry,” she whispered, echoing the final line as it rang in her head. “I'm so sorry.”

Then she turned to the final grave, and her resolve finally broke.

There was no memoir on this headstone, the final empty grave. There was only a name:



Eltharion




Anaiya fell to her knees between the two graves, and her hands were pressed to her middle before she realized it, pressed to the old wound from so many years ago. The wound that had given birth to her unyielding hatred for the Scourge, the wound that had destroyed not only her own life, but that of another before it even began.

She did not feel the tears streaming down her cheeks, nor the tremors that wracked her body. She did not know how long she knelt there, and did not notice as the sky faded to orange, then purple, and eventually black.

Every year, this happened. Every year, she knew it was coming, but every year, all her resolve and determination was for nothing. Her walls of icy unfeelingness broke, and the waves of burning guilt and sorrow flooded in.

She could not move on. She could not forget. She had failed them all. So many of them could be alive today had she made better choices, if she had not been so weak. Lireath, Moira, Alith, Auric, Verana. Tyrion. Veldoran. Eltharion. Their blood was stained forever on her hands and in her mind. Their names were carved into the flesh of her right forearm. She came here every year to grieve, to mourn, to say “I'm so sorry!”

But it was not enough, and it would never be enough.

Anaiya hunched alone on the cooling ground, and she wept bitter, impotent tears.
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