The Light Protects

Every step on the rust-coloured, hard-packed earth brought a fresh chorus of splintering and crunching beneath his hooves. It was not unlike the sound of dry twigs and small branches cracking when one travelled the verdant forests of Azeroth. Except these were no twigs that broke underhoof, but bones. Bones innumerable, stamped into the dead ground by orcs crazed with bloodlust. Any traveller here would wonder, sooner or later on their dusty journey, how many draenei had died here. Perhaps the Prophet knew, and mourned each one. Perhaps the land itself knew, corrupted and shattered as it was, but it kept that tale to itself. It had little enough to offer now; desolate crags jutting from the empty red-brown expanse into the otherworldly miasma of the twisting nether. Perhaps the land was jealous of its remaining secrets.

Brefkhen was used to the emptiness; the lonely silence punctuated by the cracklings of bone. Sometimes it was broken by the distant shrieks of carrion birds, or by the cackling of imps. On occasion, the barren crags would echo with the madness-tinged howls of fel orcs, and Brefkhen would tighten one blue fist on the haft of his warhammer and scan the dead land for movement.

All in all, it was what Warp-Scryer Kryv would call 'a noisy silence.'

The solitude did not bother Brefkhen. Nobody served long in Outland without becoming accustomed to being alone. Light, even Honor Hold was but a tiny bastion of civilisation and life clinging on in the bleak, demon-haunted Peninsula. Old life, at that; such was the price this long expedition had exacted on those who had embarked upon it. But life it was; pure life, loved by the Light and worth defending.

Or so Brefkhen told himself, when his joints ached and Felbreaker seemed heavier today than yesterday.

He winced as his hoof came down on a particularly brittle rib and it broke with a sharp snap. The sound echoed out across the flats. Brefkhen paused, moving his hoof to gaze down at the bleached and shattered bone. He wondered whose ribcage he had stepped in. On a whim, he crouched and brushed around in the rusty dirt, searching for a skull. He found half of one; a female, the horns all but powder. He sat back on his hooves and looked at it for a long time.

Without knowing quite why, he reached up and slipped one of the brass rings from his chin-tendrils. He laid it in the dirt beside the skull. It shone in the dancing lights of the twisting nether.

High in the distant crags, a maddened wail echoed up into the unearthly sky. Brefkhen straightened, scanned the dead horizon, and then walked on.

There was no real measure of time in Outland; no distant sun to chart the passage of the day, The Nether above shifted, glowed and twisted, ever-changing, but gave no reference to a traveller. Instead, you could chart your journey by the ache in your back, the grumblings of your stomach, and the weight of your limbs.

Brefkhen had walked this path often, trudging the emptiness between the Expedition Armory and Honor Hold. He judged himself halfway to the tumbledown Alliance fortress by a particular tightness in his shoulders that always set in here and nagged the rest of the way. A handful of landmarks of his own making agreed; an especially squat, rusty hill off to the west; a distant crag to the northeast that was reminiscent of an orc's fanged maw. But the ache that always tormented his right leg had not yet appeared. He had made good time.

Onwards, then. Perhaps if he maintained this pace there might yet be some of Gaston's roasted clefthoof and buzzard bites left for a weary traveller…

No. Brefkhen chided himself. A Paladin needed naught but the sustenance of the Light and what little foodstuffs he required to keep his body ready for battle. Gratuitous feasting and carousing were distractions a holy warrior could ill-afford, Let the humans, dwarves and gnomes of the Hold enjoy themselves in his stead; after all, was their joy and safety, won by his warhammer, not reward enough?

It was, and yet... the buzzard bites were so deliciously chewy, with just the right amount of spice, and then there was the wonderful, bubbling sauce that Gaston roasted the clefthoof meat in...

A chorus of howls from the hills to the west startled him out of his guilty reverie. It was followed by a low, mournful note on a hunting horn. The sound echoed around the surrounding landscape like a funeral lament, fading into the distant crags.

Brefkhen rumbled a low growl, and loosed Felbreaker from his waist. The sounds had been close – very close – and unmistakable.

Raiding party.

There was little point in wasting time bemoaning his lack of vigilance or seeking out cover. The maddened red monsters would be on him in moments. In any case, to run from the slavering beasts was against every fibre of his being. Paladins did not run from their foes; Draenei no longer fled from their enemies since the Exodar had crashed on Azeroth. No, let them come. When the fel orcs crested the hill, they would not find a cowering merchant, ripe for murder and plunder, but a stalwart champion of the Light, warhammer held easily by his side, the weathered amethyst shining purple in the otherworldly glow. They would find an unyielding defender of the Alliance, his blue and gold tabard, draped amidst plate armour crafted by the finest Dwarven artisans. They would find a living, breathing member of the race they had slaughtered in these barren, red lands so long ago, standing resolute and unafraid among the bones of his people.

Most of all, they would find death.

The first fel orc that made the summit of the bone-strewn hills was especially grotesque, even for that ugly, demon-twisted race. Its skin was a sickening pinkish-red, studded with knobbed, bony outgrowths, its tusks vast and cruelly-sharp, curving up as far as its smouldering red eyes. Unnatural, beastlike spines erupted in a jagged row down its back; an unholy crest for an unholy creature. It was obscene, a slavering abomination - an affront to all that was good and sacred.

It was the skin that disgusted Brefkhen most. In a skirmish outside Thrallmar, he had seen a human warrior, an adventurer in the pay of Honor Hold, take a glancing blow from a fireball. The magical blaze had seared the man's arm from wrist to shoulder, burning away his sleeve and charring his gauntlet. Brefkhen had shattered the rotting ribcage of the forsaken mage who had cast it with Felbreaker, sent the undead thing sprawling, and then stamped on its gaunt skull with a heavy hoof for good measure. But when he returned to the stricken warrior, the human had refused his healing spells, insisting he wanted to 'let it scar properly.' Brefkhen had not understood. But the adventurer had convalesced in Honor Hold for a week. During his daily benedictions to the wounded and sick, Brefkhen had watched the human's burned, dead skin slough away, leaving pink, tender flesh, raw like the inside of a steak. The man had hissed through his teeth when the poultices were applied.

Fel orcs were that colour; raw and red and sore, as if they had been burned all over, scorched from the inside-out. Perhaps they had; who knew what terrible atrocities the pit lords had unleashed upon them to twist them so?

As soon as the orc on the hill spied the draenei, its bloody eyes widened and it unleashed a triumphant howl, shaking its lumpy bone club in the air with a gnarled red fist. Other fel orcs joined it on the crest, jostling and snarling and lashing out at each other with their crude weapons. Each shrieked with rage and glee as it laid eyes on the paladin at the bottom of the slope. Brefkhen counted six and allowed himself a slow, steadying breath. Six was a good number; enough to get the body sweating and the blood pumping; enough to stir the zeal in him.

It was enough to please the Light.

The orc with the bone club led the charge, hurtling down the slope in an avalanche of brittle bone and rusty dust, followed by its howling, raging fellows. It wore spiked, dented pauldrons, a threadbare robe and little else, Brefkhen did not move until it was almost upon him; until he could see it up close; the dust-encrusted skin, the unholy growths, the glowing red eyes. The fel orc roared as it swung its weapon in a whistling arc towards Brefkhen's head.

With liquid grace, the draenei paladin ducked the blow and thundered the amethyst weight of Felbreaker into the orc's chest, smashing the sternum into the heart. The beast crumpled beneath the warhammer, its battle-cry dying in an appalling gurgle. But there was no time to lament the grim work of war; the other fel orcs were upon him, a seething frenzy of red skin, crude blades and battered armour. Brefkhen spun on one hoof, whirling Felbreaker in a tight arc, battering three orcs off their feet. He met the fourth's serrated sword on the reinforced haft. The creature bellowed into his face, red eyes blazing, saliva flecking his cheeks.

"You are an aberration in the eyes of the Light," Brefkhen told it calmly, not bothering to translate from draenei. Even had he spoken in orcish, he doubted the furious beast would have understood him. He lifted one hoof and kicked it solidly in the knee, sending it sprawling into the dust and bones. The Felhammer swept down and shattered its skull.

The sixth orc was quicker; it carried two jagged cleavers and wore spiked pauldrons the colour of freshly-spilled human blood. The spikes themselves looked like bleached, carved bones. A distant part of Brefkhen's mind that was still studying and observing suspected grimly that the fel orcs had been inventive with the innards of their few captors. The part of his mind occupied with combat brought Felbreaker up to block a flurry of vicious blows, the metal ringing sharply from the amethyst. But the orc did not wait for his counter, slipping sideways and sweeping a blade towards the draenei's midsection. Brefkhen deflected it on the warhammer's pommel, but the second blade scythed in and cut deep into his hip before pulling free.

He cursed as blue blood jetted from the wound, spattering the dead ground in a cobalt shower. Careless. It had been many weeks since he had let such a blow through his guard – and by the shoddy bladework of a fel orc, at that. Perhaps age truly was taking its toll on him. But he would ruminate on that later. For now…

Brefkhen closed his eyes and smashed his forehead plates into the orc's face as the creature moved in to take advantage of the wounding. He felt a tusk snap under the weight, flesh give way, teeth jolt loose; he felt orcish blood spray onto his face, hot and sticky. The fel orc fell back, shrieking. Ignoring the blue blood sheeting down his leg and the red blood running into his right eye, Brefkhen stepped in and delivered a devastating uppercut. The flashing amethyst head of Felbreaker connected beneath the orc's jaw, snapping the neck and mulching the flesh and bone.

Half-blinded and bleeding profusely, Brefkhen turned to meet the inevitable assault of the three orcs he had cast from their feet. He expected an enraged tumult and a fierce melee, but the fel orcs, for all their bloodlust and madness, hung back, wary and uncertain.

"Why do you falter, fiends?" Brefkhen asked them, wiping his eye, "Is it because you are accustomed to slaughtering draenei who are defenceless and afraid? Or do you sense the Light buoying my spirit, and fear its cleansing flame?"

They did not reply, merely growled, pacing and circling out of range of Felbreaker's deadly swing. Their eyes burned. Overhead, the Twisting Nether glowed a sickly green, turning and undulating like an aurora.

"So be it," Brefkhen muttered, "I shall do the honours."

And he called upon the Light.

It answered eagerly, as it always did, and he exulted in its radiance as it poured into his spirit and body. He was but a vessel, filling to the brim and burbling over with incandescence; no longer draenei, nor paladin, nor even Brefkhen, but one with the brilliance of the primordial cosmos, with all that had been, was and would be. He was a fire in the darkness; a thundering blaze that would scour evil and corruption from the furthest black corners.

He thrust out his hand and a bolt of brilliance shot forth, engulfing one of the fel orcs. The creature shrieked in agony as its comrades scrambled away from it, flailing in panic, burning hot and bright like a Midsummer Festival bonfire. Then, abruptly, its wail ended and it was gone, ash drifting down through the air.

Brefkhen let his arm drop, reluctantly letting the Light leave him. As it faded, he came back to himself; it was not unlike settling into a deep, comfortable and familiar chair. The pain in his hip was gone, the wound closed, leaving only the tear in his tabard as evidence of his carelessness. He looked down at his blue hand, now bereft of golden fire, opening and closing it into a fist. Could he have channelled the Light to blast all the remaining orcs to ash in a matter of heartbeats? Certainly. It was a simple matter of faith, and his faith never faltered.

But that way lay complacency. Overreliance. Laxity. To forsake the strength and dexterity of the body in favour of the holy flame was to invite that body to wane. To court weakness. No, it was a fine balance, like any good sword. Body, mind and Light, as one. Refine them all and neglect none.

Brefkhen brought Felbreaker up to meet the cleaver of the enraged creature that launched himself at him in a slavering frenzy. The proximity to the Light – the pain of it, the brightness - had driven the remaining two orcs into a maddened fury. He blocked the serrated blade of the other orc on his gauntlet, stepped in and drove the amethyst spike of the warhammer's haft towards the beast's throat. It twisted aside and the sharpened gemstone sank into its shoulder, producing an agonised howl and a jet of scarlet blood. There was no time to follow up with a killing blow. The other orc leapt onto Brefkhen's back, raining frantic blows onto his head and shoulders. Brefkhen staggered under the fel orc's bulk, but he was unmoved by the barrage. They were fast, frantic blows, with no substance, only panic and rage.

"You see death coming at last, and you scramble piteously away from it!" Brefkhen bent, flipping the orc over his head and into the red dust and bones. It landed with a crunch. "I return what you gave so freely to others!" And he drove Felbreaker's spike down into the beast's skull. The bone resisted for a whisper of a second and then the amethyst was grinding the dead dirt.

The last remaining orc, bleeding profusely from its wound, charged him in a desperate, snarling gambit. Brefkhen let it close until fetid saliva flecked his face, then pivoted around the creature's bulk, bringing the weight of Felbreaker hurtling around with him. The warhammer connected with the back of the stumbling orc's skull and slowed not at all. Brefkhen stood in a slowly settling mist of blood and powdered bone as the orc's headless corpse flopped onto that of its comrade.

Silence reigned once again on the Peninsula. A silence broken only by the distant shrieks of carrion birds and the cackling of imps. Kryv's noisy silence.

Brefkhen did not bother to speak any words over the corpses; over his meagre offering. The Light knew its own, pervaded everything, could not but witness the valorous deeds of its faithful. This was no peaceful temple, where priests intoned exhaustive prayers that reverberated in vaulted ceilings. This was the edge of life, where the Light had been brought to bear itself, had brought its judgement upon the abomination through him, its willing vessel. Words would be a conceit.

He sighed, and turned in place until he situated himself to his landmarks. The squat, rusty hill. The cliff that jutted like an orc's maw. He squinted into the distance, where somewhere out of sight, Honor Hold eroded slowly on its pinnacle, mouldering away amid the dead hills and canyons.

Would he, despite his triumphs, his skill at arms, his devotion to the Light, waste away like those crumbling walls? Would he grow old and gnarled and weak in a forgotten bastion on the edge of nowhere? Would he ever lay eyes on the crystalline perfection of the Exodar again? Had he bought a future for his beleaguered people, or merely earned them a few more hours of daylight before the inevitable fall of night?

Selfish questions, he knew. Duty was all that mattered. And yet they troubled him anyway. He grunted, and ran his blue fingertips over Felbreaker's glittering purple edges. Unworthy of him or not, there would be time to reflect on such questions later; time for meditation and communion once he had reached safety. This was not the time or place for introspection. He still had a long way to go and the familiar ache had started up in his right leg.

Brefkhen set off into the dead hills and gullies, his bloodied warhammer across his shoulder and the bones of his people shattering under his every step.