Honour and Duty
This close to the ground, the red mist was thick and cloying. It filled the nostrils and mouth with an acrid tang that was difficult to describe. Some explorers on Bloodmyst Isle insisted that the mist tasted of actual blood, but that was nonsense; the sort of morbid exaggeration beloved by bards and troubadours. The mist was born of the seepage from crimson crystals that had powered the Exodar, scattered over the island during the cataclysmic crash. The crystals might be sinister, with their jagged edges and red glow, infecting the trees and landscape, but they had nothing to do with the stark, scarlet lifeblood of say, humans or elves.
No, if anything, the mist had a flavour of the high mountains; that thin taste of ozone and electricity that defined remote and desolate peaks. It stank of power, dense and thrumming, as if a single lit match might detonate a conflagration.
Not that the mist was benign, bloody or not. That much was obvious; the extradimensional radiation from the crystals had twisted the land and the wildlife; even the sky itself hung heavy with corruption. Tormented, contaminated creatures stalked the crystal-tainted forests and gullies, attacking any and all intruders to the island with a maddened fury. Even the trees, skeletal and gnarled, drooped with gleaming crystals.
Khahiabe despised the place.
Not that she had much of a say in it, of course. Duty was duty, and it was a young hunter's obligation to patrol the corrupted isle, to track the twisted and malevolent beasts and cull their numbers. To chafe against such a responsibility was to court dishonour. To accomplish the task patiently and without complaint was to earn the trust of her mentors; to be sent on greater hunts further afield, stalking far more exotic prey.
So hunt them she would, even as she took shallow breaths of the tainted air and hoped that the brightest minds in the Exodar were right about Draenei being immune to its effects.
Khahiabe wriggled on her belly to ease the tension, feeling the gravel trickle in rivulets past her skin and down the slope. She was careful to keep her head down, lest her horns jut above the crest and startle her target. With the crimson mist swirling and thickening, drifting sluggishly across the ground, the chances of her being spotted before making the kill were slim, but she could not afford a mistake. Not with prey this dangerous.
She had tracked the ravager since before the sullen dawn, following the telltale trail of deep, jagged holes from its four sharp legs, listening for its distinct, gurgling click-hiss in the distance. She had followed it through the Bladewood, catching distant glimpses of its serrated body as it scuttled between the crystal-stained tree trunks. It was on a hunt of its own, albeit without the methodical precision of its Draenei pursuer. On occasion, it would halt, utter a sibilant click-hiss and abruptly stab into the ground with its jagged mandible, kicking up reddish dirt, pebbles and dead roots. Most of the time, it came up empty.
Khahiabe allowed herself a small smile. The mist-distorted critters of Bloodmyst Isle were not the wide-eyed, naïve creatures of the mainland. The Ravager would be lucky to come away without deep wounds of its own, should it even catch one of the wily beasts.
Not that it would have the chance.
Hearing the creature stamping around and hissing in frustration, Khahiabe shuffled up to the peak of the slope, quietly easing her rifle up beside her. A fine weapon, the long gun; precise and quick, not like the brash, deafening blunderbusses of Dwarven hunters or the fiddly crossbows of the Night Elves. No barrage of pellets or a rain of quarrels. No; a single shot through the skull or heart; clean and skilful. That was the true way of the hunter. She had called the rifle 'Aellutett,' after a legendary Draenei who had supposedly taken seventy-two orc skulls with her own long gun in years past, not long before the Exodar ploughed its furrow into Azeroth.
Khahiabe's mouth set into a thin line. One day, she would take seventy-three.
But for now, this ravager would do nicely. It was still kicking up dirt and detritus in a rage with its four legs. It was entirely focused on its anger. Khahiabe slid Aellutett up and over the crest, pressing its focusing lens to her right eye. The beast's ugly, serrated maw loomed large in the scope. Pre-emptive satisfaction surged through her; this kill would cement her competence in the eyes of her mentors – an especially dangerous quarry slain, and the hardworking Draenei of Blood Watch protected. It would prove that she could be level-headed and reliable after all.
She allowed herself another small smile. She took a deep breath. She squeezed the trigger.
The Ravager's ugly maw exploded in a shower of otherworldly gore, splattering the gnarled trees and drenching the pendulous crystals drooping from them. The headless corpse staggered on its four legs and then collapsed into the dirt. The gunshot, shattering the uneasy quiet, reverberated through the trees, faded and was swallowed by the swirling mist. A few jagged-looking birds launched squawking into the sky and then the ominous quiet settled once more.
It was an excellent kill.
There was only one problem: it wasn't hers.
Aellutett had jammed at the critical moment; a rifle's most galling betrayal. She had not fired, instead offering only a dull, mocking click. Perhaps the mist had corroded the inner workings, or there was a badly-forged bullet in the batch. But whatever the reason, it had not been Khahiabe's shot that had slain the ravager. Somewhere out there in the Bladewood – somewhere close – a stranger with a rifle of their own was reloading and admiring their shot. They would undoubtedly come to confirm the slaying and take a trophy, if they were any kind of hunter worth their salt.
There was no way to tell whether they were friend of foe; only that they were armed, skilled and confident – and about to come up upon a flustered draenei sprawled halfway up a slope with a useless gun.
This was no time for laying around like a stupefied kobold dazzled by the sun. This was no time to lament the lost kill or Aellutett's unexpected treachery. That could be saved for later; she had to forget the sting of the failed hunt for now, or risk becoming prey herself.
Scrambling down the slope, dragging the useless Aellutett, she buried herself in a hollow between the twisted roots of a tangle of trees. Vivid blue streaks appeared on her arms where the cruel brambles tore at her bare skin. She swore; the beasts of the Bloodmyst Isle could smell Draenei blood from over a mile, even through the otherworldly stench of the mist. She could only hope that the stranger's gunshot had driven away any of the ravenous local fauna. A grimace twisted her lips. How quickly her careful, assured hunt had crumbled! But then, as any experienced hunter knew, the wilderness was unpredictable and unforgiving; a situation could change in a matter of minutes.
"You must be malleable," Khahiabe's mentors repeated until she was sick of their voices, watching her with stern eyes over steepled fingers. "Unfixed in one shape, like wet clay ready to be formed. You must be ready to adapt in the space between one breath and the next, for like Draenor, Azeroth cares not for your best laid plans and will foil them as swiftly as an unforeseen breeze blows snow from the laden branch."
"I understand," she had said, believing she did.
"Not yet," old Deremiis had rumbled, "But you will. Be the unexpected wind, rather than the unsuspecting snow."
She understood now, though. And she understood that she had mistakenly thought of herself as the wind and thus been unaware of a coming gale.
From her hollow, her arms and face stinging from the brambles, wrestling with the jammed long gun, she strained her ears, listening for the footfalls of someone trained to keep them as soft as possible.
There. Just the faintest scrape of boot against dirt. The trickle of gravel down a slope. The distant click of a careful reload. Someone was moving down into the crystal-twisted trees, chambering another bullet as they went, Khahiabe frowned as she heard another scrape, louder this time, then the thwack of a branch slapping back into place. Whoever it was wasn't trying to be stealthy; were they careless and eager to take their trophy, now they'd made their kill? Or simply confident they could handle anything that might accost them?
Aellutett finally stopped misbehaving, ejecting a dud, slightly bent bullet into the dirt. Khahiabe carefully chambered a fresh one, breathing shallowly, listening for any reaction from the rival hunter over the rise, the acrid tang of the red mist in her nostrils. The footfalls and rustle of underbrush continued uninterrupted. The crystals in the trees tinkled softly as they were jostled.
Abruptly, Khahiabe made a decision. The right thing to do – the thing she'd been trained to do - nay, expressly ordered, in this situation – was to steal away into the tainted forest, lose herself in the mists and return to report her failure to her mentors. Above all she should make sure that the other hunter, whoever they were, remained completely ignorant of her presence. That was the right thing to do.
It was not what she was going to do.
She had to make up for this mistake. If she returned now, tail between her legs and sheepish that she'd let some other usurper snatch her kill, she'd be confirming all the disapproving stares, the disparaging comments, the sneering contempt, all the whispers that said she was too young, too mule-headed, too impudent to truly serve the Exodar and the Draenei as a hunter. They would all smile little self-satisfied smiles, and she would never salve the burn of embarrassment.
No, she would find good hunting elsewhere, far away from irritating people who swiped good kills out from under her, away from the Isle's scattered pockets of civilisation entirely, perhaps out in Amberweb Pass… A good pair of spider's mandibles or an angular, hairy leg would serve just as well as a ravager's head for a trophy, if she could isolate one creature from the others…
Khahiabe's eyes narrowed. She gripped Aellutett to her chest. But first, she wanted to see the face of whoever had spoiled her perfect hunt. Just a glimpse, that was all, and then away. Just a glimpse.
Careful not to place her hooves down on any broken twigs or disturb the eerie, glowing crystals, she skirted the little rise, meandering through the trees and drifting mist until she would come up on the dead ravager and its killer from a different angle. She went tree to tree, cautious not to let her horns bang against any of the more pendulous crystals, homing in on the wet sawing sound of someone cutting into a tough, chitinous corpse.
When she pressed her back to one of the less-tainted pines and glanced around the trunk into the hollow, it was all she could do not to gasp. As it was, she made a strangled noise in her throat and snapped back out of sight. Her hands were suddenly sweaty where they gripped Aellutett.
A Blood Elf. Her unwelcome rival was a Blood Elf.
Khahiabe swallowed on a suddenly dry throat. Scout reports and rumours had told of Blood Elves active on Bloodmyst, but such testimonies spoke of activity near the shattered chunks of the Exodar – the Cryo Core, or the Vector Coil. Places far from here, dangerous places vehemently forbidden to even the best hunter neophytes. By the Light, even fully-fledged hunters were cautioned against going there! They certainly did not speak of tall, lithe Blood Elf women stalking the Bladewood.
Khahiabe risked another glance. The Blood Elf was squatting on her haunches, sawing with a long, serrated dagger at the ravager's neck. Her blonde, almost white hair hung long in front of her face, but Khahiabe could see her lips twisting in distaste at her task, and the glimmer of green eyes through the cascade. The elf's skin was so pink. A stark contrast to the soft blues and violets of life on the Exodar. Khahiabe had never seen skin so pale, so bright, like it shone from within with some sort of unearthly luminescence. She had never seen hair so fair, or such fine, tapered eyebrows that curved out beyond the oval face like delicately carved white-gold arches.
The armour was alien too; dark, unidentifiable leather that left the pink midriff bare, topped with a pair of greenish, angular pauldrons adorned with spikes. Those at least looked like they had come from a ravager. The elf was bracing herself against the dirt with the butt of her rifle, a graceful, elegant thing gilded in sinuous, flowing gold. To Khahiabe's eye, it looked too delicate, too ceremonial, as if it might fall apart the moment it was fired. But she had seen what it could do; seen the way that the bullet had shredded the ravager's head in an instant.
Khahiabe breathed slow and deep, resting her head back against the pine. She tried not to imagine the beautiful rifle doing the same to her. She cursed herself silently for a fool. Everything about the elf screamed deadliness and experience, all the way from the grim, glowing green eyes down to the familiar way she handled the long knife. And beyond that, she was a member of the Horde. That hated, warlike federation of murderous savages that was the bane of the Draenei and their partners in the Alliance. The implacable foe, who would burn Azeroth to the ground and caper in the smoking ruins. The great enemy, who were only one step below the Burning Legion itself.
Khahiabe swallowed again, hard. That elf would likely drop a Draenei where she stood without blinking, give the corpse a kick for good measure and consider it a fine day's work.
Perhaps she could slip away while the elf was distracted with her prize, do what she should have done in the first place, melt away into the mist and creep back to the safety of the Exodar. The knowing smiles of her rivals and mentors would be tolerable; there would be other hunts, other prey. Other chances to prove herself. Better to suffer the temporary indignity than to have her head burst like an overripe fruit. Yes. That was the way. Just skulk away and-
"Do you plan to hide behind that tree until the sun goes down?"
Khahiabe froze, her breath caught in her throat. It felt as if her very heart stopped. The voice was sibilant and accented, almost musical. It sounded like someone just on the edge of breaking into song. It sounded like silk wrapped around steel. It fit the face she had seen perfectly.
It sounded amused.
No use in fleeing now. Even at her fastest, Khahiabe could not outrun a rifle, nor trust to a zigzagging flight through the crystal trees to protect her. Carefully, she eased out from her shelter, keeping Aellutett away from her body. Even so, even stepping out as unthreateningly as she could, she grimaced internally. She expected the Blood Elf's rifle to rise, to draw a bead on her forehead and send her spiralling headless into the gravel.
The Blood Elf remained on her haunches, leaning on her weapon, the butt in the gravel, the beautiful gold barrel pointing up at the sky. Scarlet mist drifted and pooled around her. But one long, tapered eyebrow raised curiously.
"Hm. Younger than I thought. Draenei, of course; no mistaking those hoofprints, not even for a Tauren, but yes, much younger than your abilities would suggest.
Khahiabe blinked. Was that… was that a compliment? From a Blood Elf?
She worked some moisture into her mouth. It had an acrid tang from breathing the mist. "You've been tracking me?"
The Blood Elf made a throwaway gesture with her free hand. "Yes and no. Technically, I was tracking this ravager, but once I realised there were two sets of tracks, well." She shrugged, a graceful movement. "I was interested to see how you would do."
"But you killed it!" Khahiabe burst out. "I've been tracking it for ages and-"She realised that she sounded petulant and shut her mouth.
The Blood Elf laughed, that musical sound again. "My dear, of course I killed it. It was my ravager. You merely stumbled into my hunt. Oh, don't look so put out. You're turning a darker blue."
Khahiabe made an indignant sound. To her own ears, it sounded unpleasantly like a squeak. She cleared her throat. "What about me? Am I part of your… your hunt?"
The Blood Elf looked genuinely surprised. She cocked her head on one side and rocked back on her heels. "You? Whyever for?"
Khahiabe made to wave her rifle to illustrate, then thought better of it. She used her free hand. "Because I'm… you know. Draenei. Alliance. And you're the…" She swallowed. "The enemy."
The Blood Elf's perfect, rose-red lips quirked in a tiny smile. "I see."
Khahiabe felt even more warmth rush to her cheeks. This Blood Elf was making her feel ridiculous. She tried to look stern, confident. She had an unpleasant inkling that she just looked worried. "The Alliance and the Horde are at war."
The Blood Elf stood suddenly, straightening up in one smooth, elegant motion. Khahiabe started and stepped back despite herself, but the sinuous, golden rifle remained butt-down in the tainted dirt. The elven woman brushed her pale hair out of her eyes. She looked at Khahiabe for a long moment, then busied herself fastening the ravager's severed head to her belt.
"Tell me," she asked, conversationally, "How much stock do you put in the words of your elders? Their wisdom, their commands?"
Khahiabe thought of her mentors, with their stern, disapproving eyes and sighs of exasperation that they tried to hide. Their long lectures, and the whispers that passed down halls of the Exodar as she passed like the breeze through long grasses. She thought of old Deremiis, with his metaphor about the wind and the snow.
"I- I- …are you questioning my honour?" She knew she sounded plaintive again and bit her lip. "I listen when they lecture, I follow their teachings. They are very wise. Why do you ask me this?"
The Blood Elf shook her head. "I am questioning no-one's honour. I merely mean, when an elder asks that you jump, do you reply 'how high?'
Khahiabe chewed on the inside of her cheek. She thought about all the times that she had railed internally at her mentors' demands, at the things they made her do that seemed so useless, such as sitting in classrooms and reading ancient treatises, instead of sending her out to hunt and kill dangerous beasts, as she was born to do.
"Not always," she said uncomfortably. "Sometimes I ask 'why should I jump at all?"
The Blood Elf nodded sagely. "That is how I was too. It is the mindset of a hunter. Independent. Rebellious." The lips quirked again. "Or as my own teachers liked to say, 'contrarian."
Khahiabe stared at her. "Why are you telling me this?"
"My point," the Blood Elf sighed, "Is that we are a defiant sort. It's in our nature. So if we hear the commands of our elders and sometimes snub them, why should we afford any more respect to those who lead them?"
Khahiabe shifted where she stood, frowning. This talk was beginning to stray perilously close to what the archivists referred to as 'sedition' and the clerics called 'heresy.' "Because it is our duty."
The Blood Elf rolled her eyes. At least, Khahiabe thought she did; it was difficult to tell with eyes that had no irises. But they turned skywards, at least.
"Spare me a sermon on the many qualities of duty and piety and hard work," She said acidly. "In any case, I am not suggesting we discard our obligations, or dishonour ourselves. But think on this; distant kings and chieftains sit on thrones or in council chambers and dictate the ways of the world. The Horde is the enemy, declares the human king. The Alliance must be slaughtered, howls the orcish chieftain. And thus do we go to war, kill and die for them. Blood for our banners."
Khahiabe said nothing.
The Blood Elf shrugged. "All I am suggesting is that as hunters, we are naturally given to resisting authority. Fight and die, say our leaders. And we shall. But perhaps we can fight and die a different day." Something dangerous flickered in those glowing green eyes and her slender grip tightened around her rifle. "Or do you feel we should choose today specifically?"
Khahiabe swallowed. She shook her head.
"As I thought. So let us find a clearing not infested with these infernal crystals and speak of past hunts and those to come. Light knows it's been long enough since I laid eyes on naught but warlocks and mages." Her green eyes twinkled with amusement. "And stop holding that rifle out like a scarecrow, girl. I'm not going to shoot you."
With that, the Elf turned on her heel and, with the ravager's severed head bouncing wetly against her armoured thigh, strode off into the Bladewood.
Now's the time to flee, Khahiabe told herself sternly. While her back is turned. Disappear into the Bladewood, into the mist, return to the Exodar and report Blood Elves abroad in the infected forest. Nobody would blame her for fleeing a seasoned hunter, not even for failing in her hunt. Even many of the elder Draenei would be loath to trade shots with the Horde out here in these eerie, chiming, sickened trees. They might even praise her for her caution.
Instead, with the voices of her mentors bellowing in her ears, she followed the Blood Elf deeper into the wood, clutching Aellutett against her.
'Girl,' the hunter had called her. Not unkindly, but still. Girl. She was not a girl! She was young, certainly, but was she not taller than all the other apprentices, her hooves filled with the lustre of approaching adulthood? Did her delicate, curling horns not surpass all of her peers in both beauty and curve? And who else had such consistent marksmanship on the shooting range?
She followed the Blood Elf up a bare slope to a ridge where the mist haunted in thin, drifting tendrils instead of the thick, soupy clouds of the hollows. Beyond, the Bladewood stretched out in all directions, great swathes of the diseased, crystal-hung trees glowing for miles in the mist. Other than her hooves scattering shale and the Blood Elf's lighter tread, there were few sounds except for the omnipresent uncanny ringing of the trees and the occasional hiss or bark of hidden wildlife.
"It's beautiful, in its way," The Blood Elf observed. "Tainted and sick as it is."
Khahiabe floundered for something to say. Something that would prove she wasn't a girlish amateur, "I've spoken with traders and adventurers who were here… here before. Gnomes, Humans, Night Elves. They say this place was pretty and peaceful, once."
"Night Elves!" The Blood Elf snorted. "I suppose they would know, obsessed with the natural world as they are. And Light knows they're sanctimonious enough about it." She shook her head and her cascades of pale blond hair shivered in the crimson gloom. "Still, it's true. I came here myself, before. Green, quiet valleys, wide meadows, tranquil shorelines." She looked sideways at Khahiabe with those glowing green eyes. "And then your skyship came."
"Interdimensional ship," Khahiabe corrected automatically. She went on hurriedly under that emerald gaze. "The Exodar was damaged by your people. We had no control over it. It just hurtled through the Twisting Nether until it reached Azeroth."
The Blood Elf nodded. "The story is told a little differently back in Silvermoon, as you might expect. Usually focusing on the fact that your people stole a portion of Tempest Keep, our fortress."
"A fortress you stole in the first place!" Khahiabe said hotly.
The Blood Elf smiled, her serenity unruffled. "A fair accusation. Regardless, the Exodar plummeted out of the sky, scattering crystals every which way like fireworks." She spread one hand to take in the tainted forest. "And here we are."
Did nothing rattle this hunter? She was standing there on the ridgeline gazing down at a sickened woodland filled to bursting with maddened, deadly beasts, alongside a sworn enemy of her race, calmly discussing history as if they were talking over a tankard at Brewfest. It was infuriating.
"This is why we send novice hunters to Bloodmyst Isle," Khahiabe said stiffly. "We accept responsibility; it is our duty to cull the creatures the radiation has contaminated. To keep the people here safe."
"To keep the Draenei here safe," The hunter corrected. "Or do you think your people care a fig about what happens to the Blood Elves here?"
"You mean the Blood Elves that are even now trying to carry off parts of the Exodar?" Khahiabe said archly. "We know what you're doing at the Vector Coil."
The Blood Elf laughed again. The musical trill echoed down off the ridge and into the trees, combining with the chiming of the crystals.
"Another fair rebuttal," she smiled. "Ah, to speak to someone with a little fire in their belly, instead of their nose buried in some esoteric textbook! It is invigorating." Suddenly, she turned and offered one slender, pink hand. "I am Erasendra Summershade."
Khahiabe eyed the proffered hand. Talking to a member of the Horde was one thing. Shaking their hand was another entirely. Gingerly, she reached out and took the slim fingers in her own blue ones. They were quite cool to the touch. Strange. She had supposed that a people called 'Blood Elves' would run hot with lifeblood all the time.
"Khahiabe," She said cautiously.
She dropped the hand. She was sure that she had committed multiple heresies and seditions just by touching it. When she looked up, Erasendra's emerald gaze was unreadable. Abruptly, the Blood Elf turned away, back to the forest.
"There is a dell not far from here that, for some reason, seems immune to the spread of the crystals," she said. "Even the mist seems thinner there. I go there sometimes to meditate. Come. I want to tell you of the time I stalked a bear as large as a tavern."
Khahiabe hesitated. Perhaps it was better to make her excuses and leave now. This strange, unexpected truce surely could not last much longer. Perhaps Erasendra was just toying with her, amusing herself with her prey before making the killing shot. Blood Elves were known to be capricious and cruel.
"I-" She began, edging back away from the ridge's crest.
The Blood Elf threw out a hand, but it wasn't to grab her. The fingers were splayed in the unspoken signal to wait. A frown had creased the perfect pink features of her face, but she was still looking down into the forest. "Hold. Do you hear that?"
Khahiabe strained her ears. Beyond the faint, unnatural song of the crystals and the wind through what bare branches remained to the trees, all she could hear was the occasional skittering of invisible creatures and the calls of those sharp, angular birds. But there was no need to admit that to the Blood Elf. Instead, she mirrored Erasendra's frown of concentration and cocked her head on one side as if she was listening.
"What is it?" She asked.
"Only one thing makes that sound in these woods," Erasendra said.
Khahiabe could hear it now, though it still rankled that the Blood Elf's ears were sharper than hers. A slow, drawn-out scraping, followed by a gravelly thump, somewhere down among the trees. Scrape, thump. Scrape, thump. Now and then there was a cacophony of tinkling and chiming as whatever it was bumbled through a particularly dense thicket of crystals.
"Treant," the Blood Elf said with satisfaction. "Corrupted, of course."
Khahiabe nodded in agreement, though she'd never heard the sound before in her life. A Treant. She'd read about them, of course; old, sharp-eyed Xalyn made sure of that, insisting she read through bestiaries written by Azeroth's most renowned hunters. At least those had been interesting, even when you had to read them cover-to-cover and memorise 'all the salient points.'
Treants were truly ancient tree-people, elementals as old as the primeval forests themselves. In the more benign parts of Azeroth they worked closely with Druids and were known for their wisdom and beneficence, as well as their great strength. Here on Bloodmyst, though, they were as tainted as their rooted brothers, leafless and strung with the same pendulous scarlet crystals. Worse, they had been driven to a terrible violent madness.
Khahiabe suppressed a shudder. How many of these other trees would be screaming and lashing out with their branches if they could?
Erasendra turned to her, the emerald eyes wide and shining. "It has been many a dawn since I brought down a Treant. A fine hunt, and the bark, polluted as it is, is a finer prize." She swung her serpentine, golden rifle up into both hands and stared intently down at the barrel. "I had intended to give you some pointers, one huntswoman to another, to mould your natural talent, as it were… but this is better. This can be a lesson."
"A- a lesson?" Khahiabe blinked. Then something angry set alight in her stomach. "What makes you think I need a lesson?"
The Blood Elf shook her head. "You're good. Light, you're better than half the novices in Silvermoon, truth be told, but you could be better. I can show you techniques they will never impart to you in the Exodar. Methods deemed too wild by the stuffy lawmakers of the Alliance. Do you understand? I can help you to be greater than you would ever be under their tutelage."
Khahiabe hesitated. This was all moving too fast. What sort of dark teachings did this Blood Elf intend to infect her mind with? Certainly, she wanted to learn, wanted to be better – Light, she wanted to be the best, and stride the halls of the Exodar and hear whispers about her exploits, her successes, rather than contempt. But she could do that under the esteemed guidance of old Deremiis and Xalyn and other instructors like them, couldn't she? Learn as thousands of young Draenei had before her, There was no need to risk her honour by consenting to an in-the-field tutorial from a member of the Horde.
But she didn't turn and walk away.
Down in the forest, the steady scrape-thump and the glassy rattling of the crystals was getting closer.
Erasendra frowned impatiently. "This is not the time for slow decisions, as if you were one of those lumbering monstrosities your people ride. What are they called?"
"Elekk," Khahiabe replied absently, looking back down the slope to the hollow where the ravager had died.
"Elekk. We don't have the time for you to stand here and think like an elekk." The Blood Elf gestured down the slope at the mist-shrouded forest. "Treants move faster than they look and this barren land leaves an abysmal trail. If we do not intercept it soon, the opportunity will pass us by."
"I- but- you're from the Horde!" Khahiabe blurted. "I will have to make a report. A lesson from a member of the Horde? And a Belf- sorry, a Blood Elf? My instructors will take away my rifle and break it over their knee."
Erasendra shrugged. "So don't call it a lesson. Or omit it completely. You think every report I submit to Silvermoon contains every tiny detail of every hunt?"
"I can't lie on a report!" Khahiabe didn't know why she was so scandalised. She was standing talking to a Blood Elf, for Light's sake, instead of exchanging bullets.
Erasendra sighed. "Draenei. Sticklers for rules and duty. I had thought you different, not yet tarnished by your peoples' mule-headedness. I suppose I was wrong. Farewell, Khahiabe of the Exodar. If we meet again, it will be… more traditional."
The Blood Elf set off down the slope, the crimson mist swirling with her passing. Khahiabe watched her go.
As Erasendra reached the treeline, the gnarled branches jutting up over her head like skeletal fingers, something released in Khahiabe's chest. She felt a door closing on her, a heavy, iron-banded door that would shut her away from something forever.
"Wait!" She called. Her hooves scattered shale as she half-slid down the slope. "Wait, I'm coming!"
Erasendra halted at the edge of the trees. Above her, a cluster of crystals pulsed slowly, dangling from the barren branches like diseased, overripe fruit. They cast a crimson light over the hunter's face. For a moment, with the bright green eyes looking out from a scarlet visage, the mouth a smile of darker red, the name truly fit. Blood Elf. Then the branches moved in what sickly breeze moved through the forest, shadows shifted and the illusion was broken.
"Come then," she said as Khahiabe reached her in a minor rockfall of gravel. "Let us hunt."
They moved off into the forest, the mist thick and cloying around them. It swirled languidly at their passing and closed behind them. The acrid taste was strong in the back of the throat. In the crimson miasma, all the trees looked much the same to Khahiabe; in the Bladewood, bereft of smell and few landmarks, it was easier to keep your prey in sight than follow its sign. Unless it left telltale tracks like the ravager's serrated, sharp legs, you could easily lose the trail, and then lose yourself.
Nothing moved around them, nor did the ground or trees seem disturbed, but Erasendra beelined for a particular furrow in the stony soil. To Khahiabe, it looked no different from any of the other innumerable scars that slashed their way through this forest.
The Blood Elf squatted on her heels, held her rifle butt-down between her thighs and squinted at the long gash in the ground.
"Plenty of these in the Bladewood," she said quietly, "Difficult to tell from the natural – and I use that word loosely on Bloodmyst – erosion and windscaping. But see here, the jagged edge?"
Khahiabe crouched cautiously beside her. Down here, the mist was especially thick and it made her eyes sting. "I see it."
"That's where the Treant's trailing roots have torn through the soil," Erasendra touched the edge of the deep furrow. "Uncorrupted Treants coil their roots up when they're on the move. The tainted ones take no such care. Maybe they can't. They still step lightly, for walking trees, but this is a giveaway." She reached into her satchel, dug out a leather glove and pulled it on. "If that's not enough…"
Khahiabe leaned closer. "What are you doing?"
"Precautions," the Blood Elf replied. She reached into the cut in the ground with one fingertip, running along the edge. It came up with some sort of viscous black substance on it. The liquid shone wetly in what little sunlight made it through the mist. She held it out to the Draenei. "Smell."
Khahiabe hesitated, but then took a sniff. A bitter odour assaulted her nostrils. It was somewhere between decaying leaf litter and rancid mud. She grimaced.
"Revolting, yes?" Erasendra smiled grimly. "That is the Treant's contaminated sap. Its blood, in effect. What runs underneath that charred-looking bark. I can only imagine the pain it must feel."
Khahiabe blinked. The expression on the Blood Elf's face was… remorseful? Compassionate? Saddened? But why should Erasendra care about the plight of the beasts on Bloodmyst? By all accounts her people were rapacious pillagers, plundering any and all resources in the pursuit of power without a care for the consequences for anybody else. Indeed, they were positively disgusted by the Night Elves' serene guardianship over nature.
It must have shown on her face, because Erasendra smiled a lopsided smile. "You think I am incapable of empathy? Haughty, uncaring Blood Elf, a magical addict, concerned only with status and what power I can siphon from this wounded world?"
Khahiabe said nothing.
"I told you that hunters are often different," the Blood Elf continued, "Less in tune with politics, more in tune with Azeroth. Your people are correct about one thing, Draenei. We have a duty here." She tossed her head and her long, tapering eyebrows quivered. "Granted, I am not so solemn and self-righteous about it as your Night Elven allies, but I see an obligation nonetheless."
"We're taught that to cull the maddened beasts here is an important undertaking," Khahiabe said, a little stiffly.
Erasendra straightened with that fluid grace again. Her green eyes searched Khahiabe's own. "And so it is. But ask yourself this: do your people shoulder this burden out of compassion, or out of guilt?"
"My people? Their motivations are solely pragmatic. Less dangerous beasts means it is easier to operate here; easier for them to strip technology from the pieces of the Exodar unmolested." The Blood Elf held up her rifle so the crimson light from the crystals around them shone on the gold scrollwork. "This is a tool. I am a tool. And I perform the task expected of me. But I, Erasendra Summershade - the elf, not the tool or the weapon – do this out of kindness."
Khahiabe looked down at Aellutett, unable to hold the Blood Elf's gaze. Kindness? She thought about her own hunts, her eagerness to take another trophy, take the best trophy, of how she hated this tainted island with its sickening mist and glowing crystals, of how she came here only because it was expected of young hunters, because she wanted to prove herself.
She thought of the ravager, of its head exploding with Erasendra's bullet, how she'd wanted to make that kill herself, would have exulted in the beast's demise. How she would have sauntered through the corridors of the Exodar with her prize. She felt a slightly sick sensation in her stomach, a heat rising to her cheeks.
Suddenly, the Blood Elf's hand was on her shoulder; a feather-light touch, but Khahiabe stiffened nonetheless. Erasendra's eyes were difficult to read, but she thought she saw an understanding in them.
"Compassion and the thrill of the hunt are not mutually exclusive," She said. "Did I not just glory in the fact that I have not hunted a Treant for a long time?" She patted the ravager's severed head, hanging from her belt. "Am I not pleased with this, and the price it will bring me at market?" She shook her head, her pale blonde hair swaying. "I delight in the chase. I even revel in the kill. But that does not mean I do not feel pity for these creatures I slay. They live a half-life, a terrible existence of pain and madness and anger. By slaying them, we end their torment. We do them a kindness."
Khahiabe looked at her uncertainly. After a moment, Erasendra dropped her hand and sighed.
"Come," she said, "The Treant is heading south. Your eye is good; follow the gashes in the ground and lead the way. But move quickly; our quarry covers a lot of ground."
Khahiabe blinked, taken aback, but then nodded shortly and turned to look down at the furrows in the earth. She gripped Aellutett so tightly to her chest that her knuckles turned pale blue. This Blood Elf was an enigma. Tracking her through the Bladewood since before dawn, slaying her prey, wanting to talk instead of shoot, offering lessons! Talking of herself as a tool but also a person, casting doubts on the Draenei's motivations. And now discussing the 'kindness' of their profession, as if there hadn't been that bloodthirsty glint in her eyes on top of the ridge!
It was easy to tell the natural erosion apart from the Treant's rough trail, now she knew what to look for. The furrows disappeared through the trees to the south, just as Erasendra had said.
Khahiabe set off into the wood, following the sign, but her mind was only half on the task, only half on moving quietly, but at speed. If the thrill of the hunt did not exclude compassion, why did she feel such shame and guilt pooling in the bottom of her gut like sour bile? Why did she feel like she'd done wrong?
She glanced back to see if the Blood Elf was following, half-hoping she wasn't, half-afraid that this was when she would feel a bullet from that beautiful rifle bury itself between her shoulder blades. But Erasendra stepped lithely along behind her, slipping through the red light and the shadows and the mist. When she saw Khahiabe looking at her, she grinned and gestured forwards.
"Mind where you're putting your hooves," she warned, her voice amused. "If you go down a hole you'll have to pull yourself out. I don't intend to lose that Treant."
Khahiabe faced front with a scowl, her cheeks burning. Infuriating!
The trail was mostly straight; when Khahiabe asked about it, Erasendra said that unlike their careful, considerate kin, corrupted Treants rarely moved around things when they could go through them. Indeed, at one point, they came upon a heap of toppled trunks and a tangle of branches and scattered crystals. The trunks were thin and many of them at been snapped off at the base, the branches broken where they had been stamped on. The Treant's root furrows passed clean through the middle of the mess.
At one point, she almost lost the trail when it passed through a shallow, wide stream. The water ran rusty red and sluggish, bubbling over rocks that had been stained crimson. In the light, with the mist blurring anything below the knees, the water looked unpleasantly like blood, like the artery of a gigantic beast gurgling away towards some enormous heart. Where the stream had undercut the bank, the stony earth had half collapsed, leaving a spider's web of gashes and cracks into which the Treant's sign disappeared. She'd found it again by crouching low and shuffling along above each furrow until she saw the glistening of wetness. She'd reached out to touch it.
"Don't," Erasendra warned from behind her. "Not without gloves. It doesn't spread the taint, but it burns like Light only knows."
She'd pulled her hand back, but not thanked the Blood Elf for the advice. Instead, she'd straightened up and moved on, following the rediscovered trail. She thought she heard the Blood Elf's musical chortling over the dull ringing of the crystals behind her.
Moving quickly, it wasn't long before Khahiabe once again heard that telltale scrape-thump somewhere ahead of her. She peered through the dark tree trunks, trying to make out any movement beyond the twisted branches moving in the sluggish wind and the scarlet crystals turning slowly wherever they were festooned. Small shadows darted here and there over the bare ground, tiny critters disturbed by the hunters - or by what they pursued. Was that a larger shadow heaving itself along some way ahead? Or just a trick of the light?
She realised she'd stopped when Erasendra stepped up alongside her. The scrape-thump, scrape-thump drifted to their ears through the swirling mist. The Blood Elf cocked her head on one side. The green eyes narrowed.
"It's changing direction," she said confidently. "West." She reached out to touch Khahiabe's shoulder again, but when the Draenei visibly stiffened, she let the hand drop. "I'm not given to grandiose outpourings of admiration. But most Blood Elven neophytes would have struggled to follow this trail even after being shown what to look for. You've done well."
Khahiabe felt a flush of pride and pleasure, which immediately soured like elekk milk left out in the sun when she recognised it. She was not some… some rank apprentice! Some wide-eyed novice eager for praise! She was a trained hunter, one of the best in the Exodar!
Still… it was good to know she was doing something right.
"This way now," Erasendra jabbed into the trees to the south-west with the muzzle of her rifle. "We'll move to intercept, lay an ambush. The best thing with Treants is to surprise them, and drop them quickly before they can react. Avoid a protracted battle; a warrior could outlast one, or a paladin, but we're not built for that. Quick, decisive shots are our creed." She turned, ducked under some low, blackened limbs and headed away through the trees. "Well, for my people anyway, but I cannot imagine the Draenei think differently, methodical and steadfast though you are."
Following behind, Khahiabe frowned. Had that been a mocking smile in the Blood Elf's voice?
"Not every Draenei is methodical," she muttered. Certainly the instructors were forever admonishing her that she wasn't careful enough. "We just… prefer to be sure of our course before we act. When we do act, it is with determination driven by certainty. And honour," she added hurriedly.
Erasendra snorted a short laugh ahead of her. "Did you read that in a textbook?"
Khahiabe bristled. "No." Then she sighed. "Okay, sort of. Derem- one of my mentors, he said it in a lecture."
"Do you believe it?" The Blood Elf asked, as they pushed their way through some skeletal underbrush and a cluster of crystals. The crystals tinkled against each other.
Khahiabe gripped Aellutett tightly so the barrel wouldn't snag on the bare twigs and pull out of her hand. "Why do you care what I believe?"
"Because it is refreshing to hear a viewpoint outside the myopic supremacist rhetoric of my people," Erasendra said with a shrug.
Khahiabe sighed. "I believe that my people do a great deal of talking and sitting in council when sometimes they would do better to act and then discuss it."
The Blood Elf nodded. Khahiabe watched her pale blonde hair bobbing through the gloom. "I bet opinion makes you popular among your instructors."
Khahiabe made a noise in her throat. She didn't know if it was a laugh or annoyance. Maybe both. "I am told I am… impetuous."
Erasendra laughed again. "A bad trait for a politician or a cleric. A good trait for a hunter."
That flush of pride again. Khahiabe stamped it down ruthlessly. "My people may be… disciplined, and I may not fit in very well, or- or always agree, but surely it is better than, say, your allies, the Orcs." She pulled a face. "To act with such anger, all the time…"
The Blood Elf made a disgusted sound. Khahiabe had the impression that she wanted to spit. "The Orcs. Tribal, chest-pounding, snarling idiots. Convenient idiots, but idiots nonetheless." She peered around her, cocked her head on one side, then held up a hand. "Hold. Here will do fine."
Khahiabe looked around at the hollow they'd stopped in. It was not much different from the one in which Erasendra had slain the ravager. Barren soil, lifeless, tainted trees infested with scarlet crystals, and the crimson mist creeping in and out between the black trunks. The only difference was the cluster of red-stained boulders huddling in the deepest part of the dell. The Blood Elf stepped up to the tallest two, laying her still-gloved hand against the craggy surface of one.
"Perfect cover, but also dangerous," she said. "Hide behind one; I'll take the other. When the Treant comes within range, we lean out together and shoot for the eyes. If that doesn't end it, we retreat up the slope; they have been known to unearth and throw stones such as these."
Khahiabe felt her heart hammering against her ribcage as she pressed her back to one of the boulders. It was cold against the few bare patches of skin her armour did not protect. The red taint would wash off; she'd bathed it away after a hunt enough times, like shedding a skin of rust, but it always made her uncomfortable. She imagined she could feel it tingling.
"How long?" She asked quietly. There was no point in pretending she could still hear the Treant's movements; she'd lost the scrape-thump somewhere in the Bladewood's detritus of noise after they'd abandoned the trail.
Pressed up against the opposite boulder, Erasendra turned one pointed ear as if she was checking the wind with a fingertip. A delicate line creased her brow. Then, after a few moments, her face cleared. "A few minutes, little more, if it keeps on this way. They can be erratic, but I think we have the drop on this one."
Khahiabe nodded. Her blood thumped in her ears so loud that she probably wouldn't hear the Treant until it was right on top of them. What was she doing? This wasn't some skittering spider or even a ravager. This was a Treant, a massive, furious walking tree, intent only on inflicting suffering and death in its pain and madness. She hadn't been trained for this; she was supposed to avoid the things entirely. Light, even the most experienced hunters usually avoided them.
She remembered the time Toralkhen and his cronies had sauntered out in what they called a 'crusade,' promising to return with more trophies than any cadre of young hunters had since the Exodar had crashed. By all accounts it had gone well.
And then they'd run into a corrupted Treant prowling the edges of the Bladewood.
Oh, they'd all come back alive, praise the Light – even Khahiabe had been relieved at that, for rivalry and personal dislike were one thing, but death was quite another – yet the injuries had been gruesome. Nelaas had lost an eye, the orb reduced to so much white-glowing mush down his cheek, and Aevalaana's arm had been crushed flat. Lydraan had come in completely unconscious and remained that way for a week. Even Toralkhen, for all his skill, had been weighed down with bruises and vivid blue gashes enough to topple an elekk. But Khahiabe remembered the weight of the injuries had been nothing to the burden of failure that sagged his wide shoulders. His rifle, his pride and joy that he'd crafted himself, was bent and twisted beyond repair, and hung slack in his hands as he watched his comrades being brought in. When old Deremiis, his face dark with fury, had stepped in and crooked a hand to the young would-be crusader, Toralkhen had nodded grimly and followed without a word, his head down as if walking into a gale.
It was the first time Khahiabe had ever felt sorry for him.
She swallowed with the memory. Toralken's team had been six. She and the Blood Elf were only two. Two against the unearthly rage and strength of a corrupted guardian of a ruined forest.
Her vision focused. Erasendra was looking at her with concern from behind her boulder. The emerald eyes blinked, searched her face. "Don't get lost in your own head. Don't second-guess. The Treat isn't your real enemy; you are. Slow breaths, stay grounded. The fight is out here, not in there."
Khahiabe nodded, tried to slow her breaths and hammering heartbeat. Instead of thinking about all the injured hunters, she focused on the red crust that had formed on the boulder, studying its patterns, the texture. Instead of remembering the way Aevalaana's crushed arm had looked, all shattered bones and dark blue wreckage, she looked at Erasendra's calm pink visage. The Blood Elf was breathing easily, if shallowly in the thick mist that pooled in the base of the hollow, and her green eyes glowed serenely in the crimson gloom.
Slowly, she got her breathing back under control. Her blood still pounded in her ears, but she no longer felt lightheaded, or like fleeing back into the Bladewood as far from the approaching monster as possible. She cursed herself for acting like a frightened axebeak, ready to take flight at the slightest hint of danger, especially in front of the Blood Elf. She'd hunted dozens of perilous, even deadly beasts before. Ravagers, with their serrated maws and knife-sharp legs, were no gambol in the meadow. Spiders could pull you down and sink their venom-soaked mandibles into your exposed flesh. Even a deer, driven to pain and madness, could disembowel you with its antlers. Everything on this forsaken isle was dangerous. And it was her job to hunt them and put them down. It was her duty.
Duty was stronger than fear, that's what Deremiis said. Stronger than fear, harder than elekk tusks, and heavier than all of Azeroth on your shoulders.
It was her duty.
"I'm fine," she breathed, then swallowed against a dry throat and said it more strongly; "I'm fine."
Erasendra nodded with satisfaction. "Good. Remember, shoot for the eyes. Anywhere else just ricochets off the bark."
Khahiabe had been wrong about not hearing the Treant approaching over her own heartbeat; she could suddenly hear it distinctly over the pounding of blood in her ears, louder than ever before.
Scrape. Thump, Scrape. Thump. Scrape. Thump.
There was the groan of tortured tree branches being bent; a few harsh cracks as a few snapped, and a cacophony of crystals bouncing off wood and each other. The clatter subsided, and Khahiabe had the impression the creature was surveying the hollow in front of it.
She stared at Erasendra's face. It was tight with concentration, but calm. The emerald eyes were alert, but unafraid. Carefully, she pulled her gaze from the Blood Elf's pink countenance and checked that Aellutett was ready to fire.
There was a cascade of gravel and detritus up on the slope as the Treant took one heavy, dragging step down into the hollow. Pebbles rolled down among the boulders. Some of them bounced off Khahiabe's boots.
Erasendra's muscles bunched and she gave one short not. "Now," she mouthed.
Khahiabe swung out from behind her boulder, moving in near-perfect unison with the Blood Elf. She raised Aellutett's sights to her eye, aiming for the head of the creature lumbering down the slope towards them. As the thing lurched fully into view, hunching its way through the overhanging branches, she almost dropped the rifle, and only just stopped herself from taking a step backwards.
The thing was huge, thick around the middle, easily matching some of the thick boles of the trees around it, but oddly hunched, as if bending over to protect some wound. Its bark was deathly pale, ash-grey with blackened streaks like the wood in the remains of a campfire. There was a semblance of humanoid limbs, but more like thick, knotted branches for arms and spreading roots for legs. The head was long and thin, like the gnarled trunk of an ancient oak, and a wide mouth gaped open in a skull-like grimace, the wood formed into a facsimile of blunt teeth.
But it was the eyes Khahiabe focused on; her target, the only hope of bringing this agonised creature down without a protracted, exhausting fight. Sunken holes in the bark glowed with an unearthly pinkish light; a wan light, as if whatever lifeforce that animated its form was sickly and fading.
As that pale gaze fell upon the two hunters, rifles levelled, the bark eye-sockets widened and the Treant unleashed a furious, guttural roar.
Khahiabe fired, feeling the kick of Aellutett into her shoulder even as she saw the recoil of Erasendra's sinuous, golden firearm in the corner of her eye. Flame licked out into the gloom. The gunshots were deafening in the hollow, rolling on the backs of each other into an echo that spread out into the forest. Gunsmoke roiled among the boulders.
The Blood Elf's shot took the Treant in its left eye, burying deep into the bark socket and snuffing out the pinkish light there. Khahiabe's followed a split-second behind it, smashing through the right eye and sending splinters of white bark spiralling into the Bladewood. The Treant bellowed in agony, flailing with its hands like sharpened stakes, staggering backwards. Thick, dark sap leaked down its skeletal face from each eye-socket, It looked a lot like the beast was crying and Khahiabe suddenly felt shame.
The Treant thrashed and whipped back and forth in its pain like a lone tree caught in a storm, stamping with its roots, lashing out around it and tearing strips of bark from the surrounding trees. Scarlet crystals went flying in a discordant cacophony of chiming and shattering, twigs and whole branches came tumbling. Gravel and dirt from the creature's stumbling cascaded down the slopes of the hollow in a landslide, pebbles pinging from the boulders.
But it did not die.
To her right, Khahiabe heard Erasendra mutter a venomous-sounding foreign word. Blood Elf profanity, she guessed. She was tempted to resort to some dubious Draenei expressions herself. How was the thing still alive?
Erasendra glanced at her, reloading her rifle with smooth precision. "Keep shooting!" she yelled over the Treant's rage. "Aim for the joins between the limbs!"
Khahiabe did as she was told, ejecting the spent casing and loading a fresh round into Aellutett. It was difficult to draw a bead on the knobbly arms or legs with the Treant thrashing and flailing, but she did her best, aiming for the grinding, moving joints, firing, reloading and firing again. She had the fastest reload among the young hunters in the Exodar – that was at least one thing they couldn't find fault with – and it was serving her well now. Bullets peppered the Treant, burying themselves into the pale bark with puffs of splinters. Erasendra fired and reloaded in a smooth sequence beside her, her own shots blasting furrows through the maddened beast's lower limbs.
But instead of slowing its furious whipping and bellowing, the Treant snarled with rage and pain, seemingly ignoring the dozens of wounds that ran with gleaming sap and turning to heave itself towards its tormenters. Sap leaked from its twisted maw, seeping from between the wooden simulacrums of teeth.
Khahiabe felt her stomach go cold.
Staggering, stumbling, growling, blinded and trailing one useless branch of a limb, the Treant began dragging itself down the slope.
She glanced at Erasendra, feeling the beginnings of panic starting to well up from a numbness suffusing her limbs. It wasn't dying. It had been blinded and riddled with bullets and it was still coming on. It would snatch them up in its remaining arm and crush them in its wooden fist, toss them like broken ragdolls into the Bladewood. Or it would stamp on them, squashing them flat like bugs and-
No. This was not the time to think like that. This was no time to wrestle with the fear. The fight was out here, not in there.
She set her hooves.
"What now?" She called to the Blood Elf in a voice much stronger than she felt.
"Retreat," Erasendra said, "As we planned, we go up this slope. Keep firing. If it isn't dead before it reaches the top, we split up and lose it in the trees."
Khahiabe nodded. Together, they backed up the slope behind them. It was awkward going, climbing backwards while still reloading and firing. Several shots went wide, pinging off the red-stained boulders. Once or twice, Khahiabe's hoof slipped and she almost slid back down. She would have, except for the Blood Elf's firm hand darting out to grab her. A small part of her not concerned with suppressing the terror or focusing on aiming Aellutett was annoyed to see that Erasendra's boots never slipped once, the Blood Elf setting her feet carefully and gracefully. Meanwhile, Khahiabe scrabbled like some newborn as yet unused to her hooves.
Down in the hollow, the Treant had reached the boulders. Finding nothing soft and humanoid to mash to a pulp, it took out its fury and pain on the rocks themselves, bellowing as it thrashed its remaining limb against the stone. Khahiabe hoped it might smash itself to flinders against the boulders, but no such luck. Worse, the boulder seemed to be shuddering under the impacts. The crimson mist spun in crazy patterns.
They reached the top of the slope. Crystal-hung trees loomed over them darkly on both sides. Khahiabe reloaded and fired again. It scored a furrow across the enraged Treant's head, bringing more sap welling to the surface. It howled, a sound like a tree trunk being put through a sawmill, bent down and began levering one of the smaller rocks out of the reddish soil.
Erasendra hissed that Blood Elf swearword again. She motioned back into the thick trees.
"Very well," she said grimly, "Enough. Those are mortal wounds; it will die when the last of its rage gives out, but I have no wish to endure an impromptu rockfall. Come, we'll return later to take our prize."
She strode off into the trees and the mist. Khahiabe hurried to follow. Behind them there was a reverberating snarl, branches and twigs splintered and crystals shattered as a boulder tore its way through the trees and buried itself heavily in the earth.
"A mistake," Erasendra muttered darkly as they jogged between the trunks. "The mist has been thicker in the Bladewood recently, the beasts angrier and more resilient. I should have accounted for that."
Khahiabe said nothing. Another stone flew through the canopy behind them, scattering those black, angular birds. She kept a wary eye over her shoulder.
"I thought this would serve as an excellent lesson," the Blood Elf continued, "But it seems that the Bladewood had something to teach me as well. I should not-" She slid to a halt very suddenly. "Oh."
Khahiabe almost ran straight into her, standing stock still as she was. She careened off the Blood Elf's left shoulder, caught a glimpse of why she had stopped and stumbled to a halt herself.
"It seems the lesson is not yet over," Erasendra said quietly.
In front of the two hunters, three sharp-angled, greenish-yellow ravagers were slipping out from behind the trees, all spikes and dripping maws and malevolence. Coiling heads learned forward on each set of four jagged legs, beady eyes glinting in the murk. The three otherworldly creatures hissed sibilantly in chorus. The serrated legs stamped and skittered excitedly.
If Khahiabe had thought her stomach had been cold earlier, now it felt like ice.
"Ambush," Erasendra said out of the side of her mouth. "The damn things do this in Outland. Wait somewhere for a meal to come along." A low sigh escaped her lips. "And here we are."
Khahiabe gripped her rifle. She had no intention of becoming a meal. Strangely, staring at the three unearthly monsters across from her, the coldness in her gut was beginning to ebb away, replaced with something more akin to a fire just starting to leap up from the coals. Lessons! Lessons from the Blood Elf, now lessons from the Bladewood itself. She was tired of lessons. It was time to show how quick a study she was.
"Take the one on the right," she murmured to Erasendra. "Left one is mine. The middle one will leap; roll as soon as you've fired and we'll pinch it from either side."
The Blood Elf didn't challenge her plan as she thought she might, merely nodding. "Very well. On your mark."
For a moment, the Bladewood seemed to stand still; the two hunters, shoulder to shoulder and waist-deep in curling, drifting red mist, the ravagers on their spindly legs, hissing with anticipation. All that broke the scarlet quiet was the sound of the Treant still bellowing and throwing boulders somewhere behind them. Khahiabe gripped Aellutett and willed her not to jam. The next few seconds were crucial.
"Now!" She hissed, and swept the rifle up to her eye.
The bullet left the rifle in a blaze of flame, smashing the leftmost ravager's head to a gruesome fountain of ichor and chitin that splattered up a nearby tree trunk, vivid against the black bark. She saw Erasendra's shot tear through the ravager on the right, a little lower down, tearing off its lower mandible and sending it pitching into the dirt in a flurry of legs and agonised screeches.
And then she was rolling, tumbling through the swirling mist and scraping her skin on the hard ground, pebbles rattling against Aellutett's metal barrel. As if in slow motion, she saw the Blood Elf hunter dive the other way, saw the mist part as the middle ravager came hurtling through the air in a discordant insectoid shriek. It had gone for Erasendra.
Khahiabe saw it plummeting down, knew that the Blood Elf wasn't rolling far or fast enough to avoid it, and cried out in useless rage and warning. She was still rolling herself, seemed to be rolling forever, her hands fumbling with Aellutett's reload. Everything seemed to be moving through quicksand.
The ravager came down almost on top of Erasendra, scattering pebbles and dirt and dead twigs. In slow motion, Khahiabe saw one of the serrated forelegs plunge deep into the Blood Elf's shoulder, stabbing through the leather and into the flesh beneath. Erasendra cried out and twisted on the ground, but even as the wicked jaws flashed down, she shoved the butt of her rifle between them. As Khahiabe came up against a withered tree trunk, she caught a glimpse of the Blood Elf's teeth gritted in pain and effort, her pink hands turning white with the exertion of keeping the beast at bay.
She scrambled to her feet; there would be only one shot at this. Pinned on the ground, the Blood Elf was easy prey, and once her strength gave out the ravager would tear her to pieces. Even now its legs were furiously stamping down all around her, forcing her to twist and curl to avoid them.
Khahiabe knelt, raised Aellutett to her shoulder, focused on the dancing, snapping, hissing ravager and pulled the trigger.
The bullet went lower than she'd hoped, missing the head and burying itself in the creature's chitinous body with a splatter of ichor. The force of the impact pitched the thing off the Erasendra into the spindly underbrush and as its leg came free of her shoulder there was a fountain of shockingly bright crimson.
The ravager scrabbled and came up on its feet. For the hole in its torso, it didn't seem unsteady, only enraged. She'd succeeded in drawing its attention away from the Blood Elf, though; the beady little eyes were fixed on the Draenei, knelt up against her tree trunk.
Khahiabe reloaded. The spent casing left the chamber with a ping. She glared at the maddened beast.
"My people brought you to this world, you ugly piece of elekk dung," she growled. "It seems only fitting that one of us takes you out of it."
The ravager charged. Khahiabe levelled her rifle as it barrelled towards her, let her breath out slowly and squeezed the trigger. The shot exploded the ravager's head in a shower of ichor and chitin shrapnel. The body came on for a few steps, then the legs buckled and it flopped sideways into the dirt like a puppet with the strings cut. The mist had parted before its vicious charge, but now the scarlet skeins drifted back over the space, settling over the beast's sharp-angled corpse like a blanket.
Khahiabe let out one long ragged breath, pushed off from her knee and stood. With adrenaline rushing through her, she thought she might totter, but her hooves held. She crossed quickly to the Blood Elf, bending to help her sit up.
"I'm sorry," she said, and meant it. "It was a bad call."
Erasendra grimaced as she pressed a hand to her shoulder. Blood leaked out between her pale fingers. She gestured with her chin to a nearby tree and between them and with a few hisses of pain, they managed to get her sitting with her back against it.
"It wasn't a bad call," she said glumly. She pulled her hand away from her wound and gazed at the blood on it. Even in the dim light, it looked brighter than the crystals that hung all around them. "I was just too slow."
"Do you have any potions?" Khahiabe asked worriedly. The wound looked deep and ragged, pulsing blood out over the dark armour and the bole of the tree behind.
Erasendra nodded. "In my satchel, unless I crushed it when I went down." Her emerald eyes were tight with pain. She hissed that Sindorei profanity again. "I haven't been as much as bruised by a ravager in many dawns. Careless."
Khahiabe dug through the Blood Elf's pack. In among the dog-eared sheaves of a leatherbound journal, a few feathers taken as trophies and some sort of food wrapped in linen, she found a collection of small, bulbous and stoppered bottles. They sloshed with viscous red liquid. Khahiabe dug one out and handed it to Erasendra.
The Blood Elf took it in her good hand, wrenched the cork out with her teeth and upended the bottle into her mouth. She squeezed her eyes shut in disgust, then when it was empty, tossed it away into the Bladewood. It shattered somewhere in the mist.
"Disgusting," she said, but her green eyes seemed brighter already. Beneath her ripped armour, the wound was beginning to close, the torn pink flesh slowly knitting itself together. Erasendra groaned. Khahiabe watched the injury sealing itself and felt sympathy, She'd experienced that deep, dull ache of alchemical healing more than once herself.
Strangely, she felt amusement bubbling up from somewhere beneath her sternum. A wide grin found its way to her face. She hid it and made her expression solemn.
"So. How did I do?" She asked.
The Blood Elf looked up at her and blinked. "What?"
"The lesson. How did I do? I mean, we survived a Treant, killed three ravagers… I feel that I must have earned a reprieve from homework, at least."
Erasendra stared at her, at her exaggeratedly serious face, and then abruptly collapsed into musical giggles. Khahiabe erupted into laughter with her and for a few moments the only sound in the Bladewood was their combined, helpless giggling. When it faded, the Blood Elf chortled one more time and rolled her green eyes.
"Adrenaline," she said, "Relief. They cause strange reactions after a battle." She touched the shoulder wound gingerly with probing fingers, tracing a fingertip along the puckered white scar that had replaced the gaping flesh. Soon, even that would fade. "Good enough. Come, let's get moving. I want to take trophies from these ravagers and double-back to the Treant before the scent of my blood brings anything else to play."
Khahiabe offered a hand, but Erasendra ignored it, standing of her own accord with only a little help from the tree trunk. She retrieved her rifle from down in the mist and spun it to look critically at the stock. The varnished wood was scored deeply by the ravager's serrated maw, raising several hackles of splinters like a quillboar's back, and its acidic saliva had melted pockmarks and rivulets through it.
"A nuisance," the Blood Elf said, when she saw Khahiabe looking, "But I'm a passable gunsmith. Nothing I can't replace back in Silvermoon." She gave a lopsided grin. "And better the rifle than my throat."
They went about their business with the corpses as quickly as they could. Erasendra used her serrated dagger to peel off a few choice pieces of solid chitin, stuffing them into her satchel, while Khahiabe used her own long, wickedly sharp blade to saw off one of the heads. She tied it to her belt so that it hung there just like the one on the Blood Elf's hip. Though it was heavy, and leaked ichor down her thigh, she felt a flush of pride and triumph.
Her trophy. At last.
"A well-earned prize," Erasendra observed, coming up from a crouch and dropping a ravager's jawbone into her satchel. "But not the best yet, if we're fortunate. Come."
She turned on her heel, and as if she'd never been wounded at all, strode off into the forest, back in the direction of the hollow where they had fought the Treant. Khahiabe followed, wondering how the Blood Elf was finding her way. She had lost her sense of direction when she rolled through the trees, and the barren dirt left few footprints. Still, it wasn't long before she began to recognise landmarks, such as they were; a craggy boulder here, a peculiarly-shaped undercut of earth there.
She thought about the Treant, flailing in pain and rage, and as the adrenaline of the battle ebbed away, wondered about kindness. Had they not just caused it more suffering? Tormented an already tortured beast further in the interests of taking down more dangerous, more impressive prey? She thought about the looks on the faces of her peers – on Toralkhen's face especially – when she walked back into the Exodar with a trophy from a Treant; the considered, reappraising gazes of her instructors, the way the whispers in the corridors would change to awe instead of disdain. She thought about those things, felt excitement and pleasure, and then shame.
As they were coming up on the hollow, she heard voices at the same time that Erasendra threw up a hand and dropped into a crouch.
The voices were strident, unafraid, almost offensively loud in the red gloom and quiet of the Bladewood. They weren't arguing, it sounded, just… unafraid. There were two male baritones and a higher, more considered female voice. The accents were not difficult to discern.
This time, Khahiabe really did utter a swearword. What were other Draenei doing out here? There were other hunters from the Exodar on Bloodmyst, certainly, but most of them avoided the Bladewood like the plague, preferring easier prey further north. Three together in this tainted, bleak forest? Perhaps they were a scouting party from Blood Watch.
She shuffled up next to Erasendra. "Draenei," she said almost silently.
The Blood Elf nodded. "I recognise the accent. And unless I am mistaken, I also recognise some of the voices."
Khahiabe was startled. "You do?"
Erasendra's lips twisted in distaste. "The loud, booming one is Vindicator Boros. The quieter, I do not know. But the female is Vindicator Aalesia."
Khahiabe just managed to stop herself from squeaking aloud. "The Boros? First of the Triumvirate?"
The Blood Elf nodded grimly. "The very same. I take it you've never met him?"
Khahiabe shook her head fervently. "The Hand of Argus is too important to concern itself with trainees. I- I've seen Vindicators in the Exodar, of course, they police it, patrol it, but I've never spoken to one in person."
Her head spun. The Hand of Argus enjoyed an almost mythical status among the novices in the Exodar. Every youngster grew up hearing stories of their exploits – especially the Vindicators, hard-eyed, battle-tempered warriors who travelled Azeroth to bring justice to the dark-hearted and cruel. Every trainee moved through the Exodar's halls under the watchful eyes of the Hand's paladins. More than one young warrior had declared with bravado that after their training was complete, they would join the Hand's ranks and forge their own legends as protectors of the Exodar and the Draenei.
Vindicator Boros was the First of the Triumvirate, the council of three that oversaw the Hand of Argus' operations. He was, without exaggeration, one of the most important Draenei to ever set foot on Azeroth.
Khahiabe knew that the Hand's presence was strongest on Bloodmyst Isle, for they were engaged in studying and combating the corruption afflicting the island, Blood Watch was their outpost, but Khahiabe had never had cause to do more than buy supplies on her way through; she'd never met anyone except shopkeepers and scouts.
What was Vindicator Boros doing out here, deep in the contaminated, crystal-infested gullies and hollows of the Bladewood? Suddenly, a cold wash of fear swept through her. Had he and his cohorts been tracking her? Her and Erasendra? Hunting alongside a Blood Elf, their sworn foes? Did they know she'd been- been fraternizing with the enemy?
She felt sick. The Exodar rang with stories of how the Vindicators brought righteous punishment down on the guilty. What would they do to her? Would she be imprisoned, or worse? Would she-
Suddenly, Erasendra's hand was on her arm, the pink flesh stark against the blue. Khahiabe looked up. The Blood Elf's face was calm.
"They're not here for us," she whispered. "Listen."
The deep, booming voice was issuing up out of the hollow. Khahiabe strained her ears.
"If the corruption is connected to the formation of new crystals," the voice insisted, "Why do we not see such crystals in or on the bodies of the corrupted beasts on the island?" There was the faint scraping of hooves and the jangle of armour. "You see here, this Treant? Besides these injures, I mean. The bark is withered and dry, certainly infected, but no crystals, unlike almost every tree around us. Why the forest itself, but not the Treant?"
The female voice spoke up. It sounded tired but patient. "That is a question best answered by the scholars, Boros. We have become sidetracked."
"Sidetracked?" The voice was indignant. "Aalesia, this conundrum is our entire purpose of being here. If we do not find a way to reverse the corruption, or at least contain it, we will be responsible for an ecological disaster the likes of nothing seen since the Cataclysm. The Night Elves will not forgive us, should this mist spread beyond the confines of the ocean."
"A concern, certainly," Aalesia placated, "But we have more pressing ones. I wish to find this wayward piece of the Exodar before the Blood Elves do. Tracker Lyceon, you are sure it isn't far from here?"
The other male voice was quieter, more considered, and filled with respect. "Yes, Vindicator, if my scouts aren't letting their imaginations run away with them. Perhaps four or five miles from here, at the base of a high ridge. It is only small, but hardly mistakable for a mere boulder."
There was a heavy sigh from the First of the Triumvirate. "You are right, of course. I just find this contamination so galling. How long have we studied it now, culled the maddened beasts it produces? All while skirmishing with the Sindorei over shattered pieces of our home."
"If you wish, I can have some of our scouts drag this Treant back to Blood Watch for study," the Draenei called Lyceon said.
"No, Lyceon, forget about it," Boros said gruffly. "We have no shortage of corrupted Treants on which to experiment. Though I remain curious; who slew this one, and where are they now?"
Khahiabe's breath froze in her throat. She and Erasendra must have left footprints in their retreat up the slope. If the Vindicators should come stumping up the rise and find a Draenei crouched next to a Blood Elf… She felt Erasendra stiffen alongside her. There was nowhere to flee to without making noise and leaving even more of a trail.
Aalesia's voice was dismissive. "Those are hoofprints. Too large to be a satyr. Much more likely to be one of ours. The Exodar sends young hunters out here to refine their skills."
Boros sounded dubious. "One hunter, killing an enraged Treant alone? I find that hard to believe,"
"Then you have not been paying attention," Aalesia said with pride. "This generation of young hunters that Deremiis and his people have produced are some of the best the Exodar has seen in years. Why, only last week one came into the Watch with a tally of sixteen spider legs. I have no doubt that any one of them could take down a Treant on their own."
Boros rumbled discontentedly. "I am always so busy with my work. Things pass me by. Very well. Lead on, Lyceon."
Khahiabe and Erasendra crouched low as heavy footfalls crunched up through the stony dirt of the dell.
Don't come this way, don't come this way, don't come this way…
In between the dark tree trunks, through the soft blur of the thick, drifting mist, Khahiabe saw the purple back of a wiry, rope-muscled Draenei emerging from the hollow. A truly enormous form came stumping after him; a massive pair of pinkish blue pauldrons, so high and wide as to almost dwarf even the broad shoulders beneath them. Gigantic spikes curled up from them, and as the Draenei ducked under the trees, they scraped the lowermost branches.
"Boros," Erasendra whispered.
The Vindicator was armoured head to foot – even his hooves were sheathed. He carried a heavy crystalline mace that glowed lilac even in the sullen red light. From what little Khahiabe could see of his head, a forehead plate of similar crystals jutted up from his brow.
The way he walked was strange; a mix of someone carrying a heavy burden along with a robust warrior's poise. Deadly intent and the fatigue of a duty long worn on his shoulders radiated off the Draenei in equal measure. Not listless, no, anything but that. He was vital and moved with purpose. Just something in the way he strode along; as if he'd walked this path many times and knew he would do so again.
Khahiabe thought of Deremiis again. Duty was heavier than all of Azeroth on your shoulders.
The giant of a Paladin followed the other Draenei – she assumed that was Lyceon – off into the forest.
"Head down now," Erasendra whispered, "Aalesia has eyes like a hawk. Don't let her spot your horns."
Khahiabe practically hugged the reddish, stony dirt, and so she didn't see the other Vindicator leave the dell, but she heard careful, measured footfalls that climbed the loose scree and then faded off into the unnatural ambiance of the Bladewood.
They waited for a few heartbeats longer, then cautiously got to their feet and approached the hollow. Khahiabe let Erasendra lead the way; after all, she supposed, the Blood Elf was far more used to avoiding Draenei in the forest than she was. The thought made her uncomfortable. Avoiding her own people. Was she a turncoat already? One step up from a spy for the Sindorei?
The hollow was deserted. It was a different space from the one they had left too; great furrows and gashes had opened the earth all around it, half of one slope had slid down completely, exposing the tortured roots of the sickened trees and the boulders had been shoved over or haphazardly thrown into the surrounding forest. The Treant lay in a heap of white, withered bark and glistening sap among the stones. Khahiabe was glad she hadn't been there for the last of its rage.
They half-climbed, half-slid down to the creature's corpse, sending rivulets of reddish dirt tumbling before them. Khahiabe winced. The sound seemed loud in the unearthly hush of the dell; surely the Vindicators would hear, would come back to investigate. But nothing moved between the trees, and Erasendra was already knelt beside the Treant, using her serrated dagger to peel off some strips of bark. The dagger made an unpleasant noise like a handsaw cutting through a log.
Khahiable crouched on the other side and set to work with her own knife. Considering how stout the Treant's bark had seemed when deflecting bullets, it cut and peeled away easily with minimal pressure. It was covered with the sticky black sap, though. She was careful not to touch it with her fingers as she pulled it away from the body and stowed it in her pack.
"How did you know their voices?" She asked Erasendra.
She'd made her voice as inconsequential as she could, but the Blood Elf stiffened. Had she put a hoof somewhere sensitive? But then Erasendra relaxed.
"Boros and Aalesia make short forays into the Bladewood often enough," she shrugged. "You don't hunt here for long without almost running into them once or twice." Her rosy lips twisted. "Usually they send lackeys – young adventurers, usually Draenei, but sometimes Humans, or Night Elves if they're this far abroad, but for something important, well."
She sat back on her haunches, looking at Khahiabe over the body of the beast they had killed together. Her eyes seemed impossibly green in the dim light. "You realise that I will have to report this piece of the Exodar they talked about to my superiors?"
Khahiabe looked away and chewed her lower lip, playing for time as she slowly put away the last of the bark strips. What was Erasendra asking her to do? Let her take that information to the other Blood Elves, let them dispatch a party of seasoned warriors to intercept the Vindicators? To maybe kill them in an ambush? To steal an invaluable piece of the Exodar?
Hunting alongside a Blood Elf was one thing. That was treason in and of itself, she was sure. But to deliberately allow the enemy – she was the enemy, she told herself – to bring an important report back, to knowingly put her own people in danger… that was definitely perfidy.
She took a deep breath and looked up slowly. "I'm sorry, Erasendra. I can't let you do that."
The Blood Elf rocked back on her heels, and a small smile lifted the corner of her mouth. "I see."
Khahiabe stared at her. Why was she so calm? After all they'd been through in the past few hours, now it could come to violence between them and she was sitting there smiling like an idiot?
"What we've been doing, this- this hunting together. Talking. It's, well, it's fraternizing with the enemy," she told the Blood Elf. "It's not unheard of. It's not even uncommon, really. And it's forgivable. Even the Alliance and Horde have worked together before, yes, when the need has been great?" She shook her head. "But this… it could put the Vindicators in danger."
Erasendra nodded, but that dangerous glint was back in her emerald eyes. "What makes you think, Draenei, that you could stop me?"
Khahiabe flinched as if slapped. The Blood Elf's voice was so cold. But the ice turned into fire in her chest. "Maybe I couldn't!" she snapped. "But I would have to try. And even if I can't, I would have to go tell the Vindicators, so they're not ambushed unawares. And you would have to stop that, would you not?"
The Blood Elf nodded slowly. "The Vindicators are powerful warriors. Even a detachment of our best would struggle, should they not take them by surprise." Her face was unreadable. "So we're at an impasse. Do we spill each others' blood here, on behalf of our people?"
Khahiabe scowled. Erasendra was so calm, so sure. And who had it been who had saved her from the ravager's snapping maw? Infuriating.
"Your blood's already been spilled," she retorted. "You were too slow, remember?"
Instead of ruffling the Blood Elf's calm as she hoped, Erasendra threw back her head and laughed. The musical lilt was caught up by the chiming of the crystals and turned into an otherworldly melody. It faded away as the Blood Elf looked at Khahiabe, still chortling. She brushed her cascade of pale hair out of her face.
"A Draenei's fire is difficult to stoke, but once it's burning it really roars," She intoned, and smiled. "Farstrider proverb, proven true. So, fiery Draenei. What do you propose here?"
Khahiabe thought quickly. "If we had not returned when we did, we would never have heard the Vindicators' conversation. Would never have known anything about any piece of the Exodar. I suggest we act as if we had arrived at a later date, and heard nothing of the sort."
Erasendra cocked her head on one side. Her long, pointed pink ear caught the sullen light, but she did not seem to be listening to anything beyond their hollow. Instead, her bright green eyes were considering.
"A piece of the Exodar would be very valuable to my people," she said. "Or worse, a boon for yours. Why should I not take pains that the Sindorei recover it?
Khahiabe snorted. "Please. Your people are all over the Vector Coil and the Cryo Core. The largest pieces; bigger even that Blood Watch. What advantage will one small shard of the Exodar confer that those technologies don't?" She rolled her eyes. "And Light knows once the Vindicators recover it, our people will document it, store it and study it for aeons. There is no advantage here, for either of us." She made herself meet the Blood Elf's gaze. She really did not want to kill her. Or be killed by her. "Whereas we have a lot to lose."
The Blood Elf raised one finger to her lips, pondering. The green eyes glowed. "This forest is sick," she said eventually. "This whole island is sick. My people – the Magisters, really – are interested in the Exodar's technology for one purpose alone; forging weapons. They could not care a fig for halting this corruption, merely exploiting it. Whereas your people… you seek ways to reverse it, or halt it, at least." She shook her head. "I have a duty to my people… but unlike the warlocks and mages… I feel I also have a duty to this land."
Khahiabe took a slow breath. "And so?"
Erasendra smiled a small, tight smile. "And so, I believe it is in this land's best interests that your Vindicators retrieve the debris of the Exodar." She sighed, suddenly. "The Warlocks would conjure some demon to swallow me whole, and the Mages would incinerate me where I stood, but sometimes the right thing is not the easiest thing. Let your people have this wayward piece, then. I shall forget I ever heard of it."
Khahiabe sighed in relief, but it was quickly smothered by a terrible, sickening wash of fear as a different voice echoed through the hollow.
"A wise decision, Blood Elf," it said grimly.
Khahiabe and Erasendra both whirled around at the measured, female tone, tinged by accent. The Blood Elf stood and snatched up her serpentine rifle, but the voice cracked out like a whip across the dell and held it as surely as if the owner had reached out and grabbed the barrel.
"Elf, if you fire that weapon at me, you will likely miss, afraid as you are. And if the shot does hit me, it will ricochet. By then I will be upon you and I will crush your head like an egg with my mace."
Erasendra didn't move. She really was afraid, Khahiabe could see; prickles of sweat glinted in the red light on her smooth forehead and her eyes were tight and narrow. Her teeth showed between her lips; she was on the edge of baring a snarl.
On the edge of the dell, Vindicator Aalesia stood in the shadows of overhanging branches, looking down at them. She wore tight-fitting dark armour that was almost black in the gloom. Delicate horns swept back from a slim, pretty lilac face and brown hair hung to her shoulders. But there was nothing delicate about her expression; her purple lips were set into a thin line and her eyes were like white fire.
"I do not know your name, Draenei Hunter," the Vindicator said, as her glare turned on Khahiabe. "But I see you sitting across from a Blood Elf, calmly discussing matters of war as if they were the weather."
"Silence!" That whipcrack voice again. Aalesia paced the top of the slope. She carried a crystalline mace in one hand. The fingers of the other hand traced its sharp, violet edges. "I should drag you before the Triumvirate themselves, girl! Then we would see what they make of this behaviour!"
Khahiabe felt cold all over. The Triumvirate would take a very dim view of her day's activities. She imagined standing before Boros and the others, imagined them passing down a sentence of imprisonment or exile. Imagined the knowing looks of her peers and the sighing and shaking heads of her instructors as she was dragged away. She swallowed. If Aalesia didn't carry out a summary sentence of her own right here and now.
But suddenly, Erasendra was speaking, and the white-hot glare of the Vindicator nor the threat of the mace seemed enough to stop her.
"Draenei, you misunderstand. I cajoled this young hunter of yours into aiding me on a difficult hunt." The Blood Elf was rapidly regaining her composure. She shrugged uncomfortably. "Hunting is a lonely profession. My people on this island are all Warlocks and Mages and other scholars of the esoteric. I have little in common with them. I spend many days alone in this crystal-cursed wilderness. So I threatened this girl into joining me for a time."
Khahiabe stared at her. Erasendra was… protecting her? Most of that was true, but she hadn't truly threatened her. She would have walked away had Khahiabe not pursued. She looked at Aalesia's grim face, at the way she fingered the points and edges of the crystalline mace.
She stood, awkwardly.
"Vindicator, that isn't entirely true," she said, and was surprised to find that her voice was quite strong. "This Blood Elf didn't threaten me, not really. She offered to teach me further techniques in hunting, and would have walked away if not. I- I accepted."
"Did you?" The Vindicator's voice was like iron.
"Yes. Because- well, because Deremiis is always telling us, 'you will learn more in the field than you ever will from me, or any lecture or textbook. The land will teach you better than I can.' He says; 'be open to its lessons, but also its harsh criticisms." She shook her head. "Deremiis tells us to always be alert for opportunities to learn; to grasp them swiftly before they take flight like a startled axebeak." She set her hooves against the red dirt and made herself meet the Vindicator's hard, bright eyes. "So that's what I did."
Aalesia frowned. "By grasping opportunities, I doubt Deremiis was referring to socialising with the enemies of our race!"
Khahiabe shook her head. "Why not? If they can teach us, and we can make a truce, even temporarily, then why not? Isn't that one step towards ending this war? A- a lot of people have died. A lot of Draenei, a lot of Blood Elves, Humans, Orcs, everybody. Shouldn't we want to stop it?"
The Vindicator stared at her for a moment, then her shoulders slumped and she let out a sigh as if she'd been holding her breath for a long time.
"Silvermoon does not want peace, girl," she said tiredly. "Nor does Orzammar, or, in truth Stormwind or Ironforge or even the Exodar. Too much hate to just let go now. Too many atrocities."
Khahiabe scowled. "But we do. I do. Erasendra here, she does. Or- or at least, she believes we have a duty to reverse this corruption on Bloodmyst. Isn't that what this is more about? People, not- not kings and councils and chieftains." She took a deep breath. "Not even the Hand of Argus."
Aalesia's eyes narrowed to lines of white flame. They flicked between the Draenei and Blood Elf hunters. Eventually, it settled on Erasendra.
"Is this true, Elf?" She snapped. "You seek to halt this contamination?"
Erasendra shrugged. "I am a hunter, not a scholar, nor mage. I cannot reverse or stop it. So I put the infected creatures out of their misery. It is my part to play."
"And your people?" Aalesia demanded,
"Could not care less," Erasendra admitted. "Those not worrying about their next magical fix are largely concerned with stealing as much technology from the Exodar as is possible, and damn what happens to this island." She sighed. "But there are others. The Farstriders. Other hunters, a few Mages who are considered radical and bleeding-hearts… not many, but some."
Vindicator Aalesia was silent for a long time. The only sounds were the tinkling of the crystals, distant animal calls and the cawing of those jagged-looking birds up in the trees. Aalesia hefted her mace thoughtfully in one hand, less like a weapon and more like something she was weighing.
"I had thought there might be some… fraternization happening when I saw that the hoofprints were accompanied by a track made by boots," She said, eventually. "We haven't had any of the other allied races through in some time, so the likelihood was Blood Elf. But I sought answers rather than retribution. That's why I doubled back alone, and put Boros off the scent." Her purple lips twisted. "He is a good Paladin. And like many good Paladins, he carries out his duty without asking questions." She touched a sharp edge of the mace again. "I… am not so good a Paladin."
Khahiabe stared at her. Was that the ghost of a smile on the Vindicator's face? "What are you going to do with us?"
Aalesia looked down at them, then glanced over her shoulder. Nothing moved out in the Bladewood. She shook her head. "Against my better judgement, I am not going to do anything at all." She sighed that heavy sigh again. "Perhaps, in your youth, unclouded by the dark thunders of war, you have unearthed a truth I had forgotten. Perhaps the tides of battle and diplomacy are not dictated by kings and councils and prophets… but by people. Those of us who fight and die, not those who send them to do so."
"I-" Khahiabe began.
"Quiet, girl. Let me speak," Aalesia cut her off smoothly. "And, while we have a duty to our people, to our rulers, to our pledges… if we are the people upon whom the burden of the future falls… perhaps it is also our duty to seek peace whenever we can."
Khahiabe stared at her. A Vindicator, the hard, merciless hammer of the Hand of Argus, actually agreed with her? She had been babbling, seeking to defend herself, to put up some form of argument that might ameliorate the Hand's harsh judgement. Instead she had found… a convert? But no, perhaps not. Aalesia was shaking her head.
"Such peace will never last, of course. But perhaps the moments of it are a victory in and of themselves." She turned her attention to Erasendra, who for her part was staring dumbfounded as well, her lips half open. "Sindorei. If you are spreading word among your people that something must be done about this island's corruption, I cannot in good conscience put a stop to that. Not when even our enemies might be converted to that cause." She shook her head. "I will let you walk away from here, on this one occasion. But do not seek to rope any further of our hunter neophytes into your schemes. If you tempt any more Draenei to hunt with you, I will find you and our meeting will not be so polite as this one. Do you understand?"
Erasendra had stiffened at the word 'let' but she kept silent and nodded sullenly.
"Begone, then," Aalesia commanded. "And know that this armistice lasts only for today. If we should meet in these woods again, we will do battle. Go."
The Blood Elf hesitated, frowning, turned to head up the slope, but then abruptly spun back around. She laid a smooth pink hand on Khahiabe's arm.
"You hunted well, Draenei," was all she said.
Her green eyes glowed, she twisted a lopsided smile and then she was gone, climbing the slope with all the grace her people possessed. She turned once at the crest, glanced between Aalesia and Khahiabe, tossed a salute that might have been mocking, and then disappeared into the dark trees. The scarlet mist swirled sluggishly in her wake.
Vindicator Aalesia stared after her for a while, but then sighed and made her way down the rest of the slope. The Paladin set her hooves carefully on the loose, stony soil. She joined Khahiabe at the corpse of the Treant, among the unearthed and toppled boulders. Though her horns were not as lustrous and curling as Khahiabe's, she towered over the young hunters. Her face was stern, though it seemed to have lost the indignant rage that had put bright purple spots in the lilac cheeks earlier.
"You realise, I hope, that I will have to punish you?" She said slowly.
Khahiabe nodded glumly.
"Normally, this would be considered serious enough to call the Triumvirate into council, to act as judge and jury," Aalesia said. "But as a Vindicator of the Hand of Argus, I am authorised in their absence to act on their behalf."
Khahiabe remained silent. Here it was. If she'd convinced the Vindicator of the merit of peace with her words, it had not saved her from punishment. The proclamation of imprisonment or exile was forthcoming, she was sure.
"What is your name, girl?"
"Khahiabe," she mumbled, looking down at her hooves. They were all stained with red dust.
"Khahiabe," Aalesia intoned. "You will return to the Exodar, where you will find Deremiis. You will tell him that you carelessly allowed yourself to fall into a Blood Elf snare, from which you had to be rescued by a Vindicator. You will instruct him to provide whatever punishment he sees fit to discipline this reckless behaviour."
Khahiabe's head snapped up. "But- but that's not-"
The Vindicator's glowing white eyes seemed amused. "Not what happened? It is close enough. And I think the humiliation of your instructors and fellow neophytes believing you hung like a trussed bird from a tree branch for several hours is sufficient to dissuade you from making any ill-advised truces with Blood Elves in the future." The eyes flashed. "Or should I call Boros back here, and arrange a meeting of the Triumvirate?"
Khahiabe dropped her head again and shook it. "No, Vindicator."
"Good," Aalesia said. "Go now. It is a long enough journey back to Azuremyst and the Exodar."
Khahiabe nodded, gathered her pack and shouldered Aellutett. She set off dolefully up the slope out of the dell. Before she reached the trees, the Vindicator's whipcrack voice called out again.
Khahiabe turned, her heart sinking. The Vindicator was still standing beside the Treant's corpse. Her eyes glowed brightly in the red murk, and what light made it through the mist glinted on her violet crystal mace. Khahiabe was startled to see a slight smile on her lilac face.
"This was a good kill. Even Vindicators reconsider tangling with a corrupted Treant. That you and your… companion could accomplish this speaks highly of your skills." She nodded to Khahiabe's pack. "Once you have completed Deremiis' punishment, display the trophies you took from it. And the ravager's head at your belt." The smile was definitely wider now. "That should suffice to take the sting out of any disgrace."
And then the Vindicator was gone; she stepped quickly up the slope and was quickly lost among the dark trees.
Khahiabe stared after her for a few moments. She thought about the looks on peoples' faces – on Toralken's face most of all – when she produced strips of bark from a corrupted Treant, of how they would stare in awe and jealousy. Of how even her instructors would nod approvingly and say; "I knew she had promise." She thought about how she'd slain something even a whole cadre of hunters could not; now the whispers that suffused the corridors of the Exodar whenever she passed could not fail to change from amused disdain to actual respect.
She grinned, and then even giggled to herself. Compared to finally proving herself, whatever punishment Deremiis could cook up didn't seem so bad. Even the shame of supposedly dangling like an idiot in a snare lost its edge.
Khahiabe set off into the Bladewood at a jaunty pace, thinking of Erasendra, of Treants and Ravagers and Vindicators.
But mostly, she thought of the look on the face of old Deremiis when she told him she'd slain a Treant. The mental image made her giggle again, and even the sullen weight of the crimson mist was not enough to blunt her merriment.
Brace yourself, Exodar. Khahiabe the Hunter is coming home.