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Deep Breath

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Onyxia awakens in the pit, cold and silent.

It takes her a moment to adjust to the darkness, and to remember — she twists around sharply, finding herself now unbound, in body and in mind. Her eyes rest upon her brother's corpse, withered and headless, lying against the wall like crumpled paper. All his plotting, his boasting, come to such a small measure. Her mouth wants to curl into a smile, but she finds her face stiff and dry as a mask.

She looks upon herself, sees her body ravaged and her bones exposed, her scales discolored and lusterless. She sees everywhere a sword struck a blow, everywhere a spell burnt or froze. She sees, but does not feel — she runs a faded talon along the soft, eroded flesh of her arm, and there is no pain. In her father's flight, pain is a familiar and even honored companion, but she now feels nothing.

She rises. It is not easy. The numbness of her feet makes the ground feel insubstantial, like there is nothing there at all. Lingering lightning sparks along her body, making her jerk like a puppet. She rips away the goblin-like tubes with which her brother violated her body, feels them slither like snakes out from underneath her skin. Acidic fluid spills from the holes, hissing and spitting upon the ground.

She lurches toward the wall of the circular pit, flinching when she loses a rear claw as it catches on the porous dried lava of the floor. Her body is held together with only spell-work and stitches, and may fall apart if she isn't careful.

Around her left wrist there is a golden crown with seven points, each decorated with a dark opal. She does not know why it is there, but she finds she dares not remove it, feeling certain that it is important, as one knows things in dreams.

Gingerly she clambers up onto a platform. Lifting her head, she gazes up at a narrow shaft of light that illuminates the dust above her. She opens her torn wings, testing them; the sound they make is as dry and brittle as the pages of an ancient tome. She will never get off the ground.

The lift, no longer held up by Nefarian's magic, is lying in broken pieces at the bottom of its shaft. Looking up at the hopeless height, she almost laughs, but no sound emerges. She remembers, then, her brother's smile as he cut out her larynx, explaining that he had grown tired of her pleas for merciful oblivion.

Onyxia will never again share in anything of her brother's. Not even his tomb.

Her climb up the broken lift is perhaps not so long in distance, yet it seems eternal. She cannot feel her claws upon the rocks, so she has to crane her tattered neck around to see where she is putting her feet, and her vision is blurred, as though she is peering through rippling water. Her body is no longer an instrument of her power, but now a staggering burden; it is as though she must lift two of herself each time she moves, each time she heaves one more yard up the wall.

There is a moment, almost two thirds of the way up, when her right hind foot slips, and she is clinging to what feels like nothingness as chips of stone clatter to the ground far below her. Her tail whips wildly back and forth, desperate for balance, and her talons clutch, finding no purchase. Her unliving forelimbs are strained to the point of dislocation, but she cannot fall. She will not fall.

Once her foot finds a hold, she dares not move for a time. Then, slowly, trembling beneath her own weight, she releases her left hand from its death grip on the wall, and she climbs.

At the top, she finds that the light is coming from a crack at the side of a metal door. She has no memory of coming in this way — she simply died in her lair, and then awoke in her brother's. Already shaking with exhaustion, she casts about for something to use on the door, but sees nothing. There is only the decomposing corpse of a large lava worm, its sturdy carapace exposed...

A curved segment of the exoskeleton comes away easily in her claws, and gripping it as firmly as she can manage, she jams it into the side of the door frame and pushes, hoping the leverage will pop it open. The carapace gives slightly, but doesn't break; the steel door creaks, but doesn't open.

Again she pushes, and again. Her eyes are closed, her still-sharp teeth gritted hard together. Her lungs no longer breathe, her heart no longer beats, and so the gargantuan effort she puts forth against her prison's door is nearly silent. The only sounds are the creak and scrape of her makeshift tool against the door, and the soft, metallic clatter of dragonscales that break free and fall to the floor, leaving naked gray flesh that is beginning to tear under the strain.

At last the door lets out a horrendous, rusty groan. It doesn't open, but the lower corner bends, leaving a gap of just a foot or two between it and the wall. The light comes through brighter now.

She has not used her human body in years, and not at all since she died, and so she is tentative as she transforms, and the room seems to grow around her. She examines herself and is unsurprised to see that this body, too, is dead, her arm bones exposed, white and smooth. Clumsily she fits herself through the gap in the door, and stands upon the terrace, seeing the open sky. It is the sky of death, still and gray.

She has escaped, but what small relief she feels does not last long — only until she looks over the edge of the stone terrace, and sees the drop of a thousand feet or more from the top of her brother's loathsome mountain.

There is only one step to take, and she takes it. Transformed back again, and spreading her ruined wings, she steps off the edge, stone crumbling to dust beneath her, hoping she can glide long enough that the landing will not break too many bones.


Lilian first sees the girl stumbling as though drunk along the side of the red, dusty road. It is not until she draws closer alongside her, pulling up on the reins of her stolen mount, that she sees this is not the reel of drunkenness, but rather the tireless lurch of undeath. Upon the girl's head there is a seven-pointed tiara, shining curiously bright, and her red and purple robes are whole, untattered. If she was buried with these, it can't have been long ago.

There is no reason for Lilian to stop. She has her own business to attend to, and this unarmed girl is no threat and none of her concern. It is not even that she pities her — Lilian is not sure she can feel such things any longer. But perhaps she wishes that she could.

"Are you lost, my lady?" she asks. It comes off her cracked tongue sounding harsh and sarcastic.

The girl looks up through wispy strands of long raven hair. From the back, Lilian first thought her a young maiden, but in her sunken eyes Lilian sees the hard wisdom of long life, and the glint of free will. When she opens her blackened mouth to answer — but then clutches at her throat — Lilian sees the torn flesh that hangs beneath her jaw.

She dismounts, wincing at the rattle of her bones when her feet hit the ground, and moves to a pile of loose, blood-colored earth near the road. Lilian, she writes in the dust with a fingertip. Surely one buried with a crown must have an education.

The girl gives Lilian a penetrating stare before anything else, as though trying to decide something. Her black eyes seem to look straight into Lilian's soul — but what has she to fear from that? Lilian doesn't look away. The girl nods slightly, satisfied, and crouches carefully in the dirt. The hot wind of the steppe blows her skirt and her stringy hair. With a talon-like finger, she traces each letter carefully, as though having to take her time to remember.

Katrana, she writes.


They ride through long days and sleepless nights, the undead horse's canter tireless even on the increasingly muddy ground. Lilian keeps her eyes on the road, but can always feel Katrana's near-fleshless hands digging into her waist, can always sense her sitting stiffly behind her.

Lilian is not sure what she is doing. She doesn't think Katrana has mesmerized her, but would she know it if she had? She does not know why she is helping her, why she keeps following the curious maps Katrana draws in the dust with a strange crooked smile on her wasted lips. The maps are never labeled, and something about their shapes and lines exudes foreignness; Lilian wonders what language Katrana would speak, if she could.

Is it loneliness that makes Lilian ride into the Wyrmbog with a stranger at her back? Lilian's impure eyes can barely tell one color from another anyway, and in this land all is brown, from the mud-choked swamp to the deathly sky. The brackish water is up to the horse's knees sometimes, and Katrana delicately draws up her paper-thin feet to avoid the splashes.

The skeletal forest opens up as they approach the cave, and black drakes circle like vultures, casting shadows that flicker around them on the waterlogged earth. Lilian's mount hesitates under her hands. The steed of death is said to be fearless, but there is a limit to all things.

Katrana dismounts clumsily, falling to her knees before scrambling desperately toward the vast mouth of the cavern, a rictus of mad eagerness etched onto her face. Lilian follows, weapons drawn. She has come this far, and doesn't intend to stop now.

The cave is strangely geometric, as though made by man, not nature. She's not far in before it goes completely black, and cobwebs stick to her face and hands as she follows Katrana into the dark. Katrana must have a cat's vision to move so quickly through the tunnels; Lilian has to keep her fingertips on the wall as she follows the sound of Katrana's feet kicking up stones ahead of her. She has heard that the dragon of this lair was slain, and that the drakes only keep a mourning vigil for their lost mother, but now, as she senses their muffled roars shuddering through these walls like earthquakes, she isn't so certain.

She turns the corner, and the light comes from nowhere, like a bolt from the heavens. It floods the vast room, half-blinding her, and glints off the scales of the massive dragon who slumbers within, black and deep violet, with claws like a lion and horns like a ram.

There is a rattle beside her, and she turns — it is Katrana, her mouth and arms open wide in ecstasy, hair floating about her crown as inhuman laughter hisses and rustles in her chest. She steps forward, and Lilian steps back, guarding herself.

The dragon awakens with words that echo in Lilian's mind, not her ears. In a blink, Katrana is gone, and then there are two dragons face to face, mirroring one another. They are life and death, whole and ruined, bright violet and dusky gray. It happens quickly — the dragon that was Katrana moves forward, and there is a flash, and then there is only one.

Onyxia rears back in glorious triumph, her wings billowing like sails on the greatest ship in the world, brushing the sides of the vast chamber. Her flesh sparks and shimmers as though her power fills her to bursting. She draws in a deep breath, slowly, reveling in it, and lets it out in dazzling flame into the empty air.

Perhaps if Lilian does not move, the lizard cannot see her crouching here, still as a mouse before an eagle. That hope is extinguished as Onyxia's great head swings around, and her eyes fix upon her, golden and unrelenting. Her dagger-like talons scratch deep gouges in the stone floor as she moves forward.

Lilian holds her weapons at the ready, but she knows that it is over. Defeat is not entirely unwelcome; maybe now, she can rest.

Carefully, Onyxia removes a golden band from her left wrist. The beast holds Katrana's seven-pointed crown before her, her scaled maw curving into a smile. Her paw flickers across it, claws glinting like obsidian, and then she places something upon the ground by Lilian's feet; she can feel the blistering heat of the dragon's flesh as her forelimb passes close to her, then withdraws.

Onyxia turns away, her tail slithering behind her as she moves to the center of the cave, her realm. Her voice thunders once more through Lilian's mind:

May you, too, live again.

Never taking her eyes off the dragon, Lilian crouches down and reaches tentatively for what she has been given. She opens her hand and sees that it is an opal. Violet and yellow flame glitters deep within the stone, half-hidden like lightning through clouds, and Lilian does not know if she has just accepted a blessing or a curse.