In the darkness, their voices came to her — quiet at first, but then nearby, as if they were whispering in her ear. She could not see them, but she knew their voices just the same: her brave father and her gentle mother, and Aziron and Vassanta. You left us, they said, and they came near enough to touch her, their hands pale and cold. Vajarra trembled, afraid and ashamed, their cold white eyes upon her. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, turning away so they would not see her tears. But behind her stood another figure, a thin smile etched on the slender elf’s sharp features. She started to speak, but he raised a finger to her lips, still smiling that sly smile. Forget about them, Priestess, he said. His raised his hand, the gloved thin fingers brushing over her cheek, and she flinched away, startled.
Vajarra blinked at the wan light of dawn, and it took her a moment to remember where she was. The cave on the cliffside, where she had hidden from the avalanche. Her family hadn’t been here — she had been dreaming. It seemed so real, and she was sure that she could still hear Istahn’s voice. She shrugged out of the blankets, pulling her cloak around her shoulders.
Was she dreaming still? She could smell the fresh cold scent of the snow, hear the faint warbles of songbirds in the dark green trees, but how could she be certain? Vajarra paused at the mouth of the cavern, letting her fingers rest on the damp, wet stone.
He stood atop the stone ledge, surrounded by the brilliant brightness of the morning sunlight on the new snow, and Vajarra had to squint to see him. She expected that he might be weak or fragile from his ordeal, but he seemed rather the opposite; more bold, more filled with life than he had ever been in Shattrath. But perhaps that was because he felt uncomfortable there, that the wilds were more where he belonged. Vajarra couldn’t find any words, so she smiled up at him, shyly.
Though doubt gnawed at the back of her mind, Vajarra pushed it away. He extended a gloved hand to her, nodding toward the summit. “I have so many things to show you, Priestess.”
He led her up a narrow path, one that Vajarra had not seen before, and she had to concentrate to keep from slipping — though she knew he would catch her if she fell. Then why did doubt still linger? Vassanta and Malcos were foolish, and not exactly paragons of good judgment themselves, who were they to tell her what to do? She raised her gaze to look at him again, striding confidently along the trail, pausing to listen now and then, sword hand on his hilt. Maybe he looked different, but that didn’t matter, did it?
His sword! The realization made Vajarra startle. Vassanta said his hand had been cut off, back in the woods. Was she mistaken, or was there some sort of magic that had caused it to become whole again? Vajarra admittedly knew little of such magic, but just the idea of it made her feel faintly queasy. From behind him, nothing looked amiss, but he was wearing heavy plated gloves, so it was impossible to tell for certain and she wasn’t about to ask. He glanced back to her, and she lowered her gaze hastily, feeling her ears warm. His eyes were startlingly and brilliantly blue, not the sickly green that she remembered. Had he shaken off the effects of the fel magics, then? Vajarra didn’t really understand the nature of the blood elves’ addiction, but it certainly seemed possible.
The pale morning sun crept over the craggy spine of the mountains, illuminating them with golden light. “It’s beautiful up here, isn’t it?” Vajarra asked, mostly to break the silence. He nodded briskly, almost impatiently, and with a single stride, closed the distance between them. Vajarra felt her heart catch in her throat.
“Look well, Priestess,” he whispered, leaning in close to her, his cold eyes gleaming. “Look what has become of me. This gift that I was given.” Vajarra tilted her head, puzzled. What gift did he mean? She remembered his first letter, and his promise of a gift then. Was he going to give it to her now? His lips were very nearly touching hers, and Vajarra felt herself tremble. “And at last… I am going to give it to you.”
The kiss did not really surprise her, but the eerie coolness of his lips did, and a shudder of fear ran through to her hooves as she realized, all too late, what stood in front of her. How could she have been so foolishly blind? He raised his hand to her cheek, just as he had in the dream, and she squeezed her eyes shut to keep herself from screaming. Then, as if bitten, he jerked it away quickly, roaring in pain and surprise.
Malcos! He must have found shelter during the avalanche after all, and tracked them here. Vajarra had never been so grateful to see him as she was now, and vowed to apologize to him — if she got the chance. He’d plunged one of his daggers into Istahn’s lower back, through one of the narrow gaps in his armor. He whirled on Malcos like a furious snake, drawing his sword with the hand he shouldn’t have. She had to help Malcos! Istahn paused long enough to glare icily back at her, and Vajarra felt a shadowy hand at her throat, cutting off her breath. She could only watch helplessly, falling to her knees as he advanced on Malcos.
They circled one another warily, Malcos held only his daggers, but he refused to back down. “Let her go,” he growled, his ears laid back.
“How brave of you,” Istahn sneered, the tip of his sword dipping to the ground as he touched it there, the ground seeming to shudder at its touch — just as Vajarra had. “Stupid, but brave.” The snow and earth churned as a rotting skeletal hand clawed its way to the surface, and Vajarra could only stare in breathless horror as the rest of the corpse drew itself out from its bed in the ground. Its dead, sightless eyes fixed on Malcos, and it shambled toward him with frightening speed.
He had been right, about everything, Vajarra thought as the last of her air escaped her lungs, but then all at once the hand was gone, and she breathed in great gasping breaths. “Come now, Priestess,” Istahn turned back to her, grabbing her arm to pull her to her hooves. “No more distractions.” She could hear Malcos growl in rage as the thing slashed and bit at him, clutching at him with its terrible bony claws.
Vajarra could not fight like Malcos, she wasn’t trained like Vassanta, what could she do to help? Desperately, she prayed for the naaru’s help, so far away in this cold and lightless place, she was not certain if they could hear her. Please help me, she pleaded silently, afraid that Istahn might hear. She heard something fall to the ground and she looked back to Malcos, but he stood there still, the remains of the ghoul still faintly twitching at his feet.
“I told you to let her go, you bastard,” Malcos snarled, staring grimly at Istahn.
To her surprise, he did — at least, he dropped her wrist and whirled to face Malcos again, his sword pointing at the night elf. “Very well,” Istahn hissed. “Come and get her.” A bolt of darkness leapt forth from his hand, seeming to clutch Malcos around the waist and dragging him over to Istahn, all in the space of a blink. Vajarra could only watch in horror as the sword plunged through Malcos, emerging out his back. The elf stumbled weakly and crumpled down to the snow.
She watched in numb shock as the blood crept over the snow. He killed him, she thought, as Istahn wiped the edge of his blade clean. And now he’s going to kill me too. She remembered what Malcos had said, about dying here, and now she had seen it for herself. She couldn’t let that happen, especially not to Malcos who had tried so hard to warn her. Vajarra asked again for the naaru’s help, as Istahn advanced on her, the blood still caught in the ridges of his blade.
As they had many times before, the naaru answered — but she felt it rather than heard it, a surge of light that enveloped her body entirely, reflecting off the bright snow. Istahn growled and slashed at her with his blade, but the aurora held strong, protecting her as her hands glowed brilliantly with holy fire. She did not feel sorry; not anymore, he wasn’t the same person she had known before. Or perhaps he was, and Vassanta had been right all along. At the last moment, he seemed to falter, and Vajarra touched her hands to him, searing with burning light. He shrieked in pain, recoiling from her as he grabbed blindly for his sword. She felt as if the heavens themselves had opened up and now brought judgment down his deceitful, unholy head. He staggered down the slope, half running and half falling, but she did not chase him. Vajarra went to Malcos’ side, kneeling in the red snow.
Still bathed in the naaru’s light, she laid her hand on the wound, willing it to close, at least enough that they could find help. Her other hand took his, holding it in hers until she felt warmth there once again.