The last voice Pakani expected to hear as he laid offerings before the gravestone was that of the man whose name was carved on it.
“Ye’d think a blind fella’d be easier tae find, eh?”
“Holy hells!” Pakani dropped the bottle of stout as he half-scrambled to his feet and half-fell off of them again. Glass shattered and liquor splashed his shoes.
“Aw, shite, lad.” Heavy, metal-booted foot steps tromped over. Pakani knew that gait well, and knew that voice just a few feet above it, but both were off. That armor didn’t sound right. Different material, denser, less polished, didn’t have that bright tang and easy swish anymore, it sounded coarse against the gambeson and muffled around the joints.
And the voice, by the Light, his old friend was calling out from the bottom of a deep, dark well through an ancient brass pipe. It echoed after itself and brought up the cold filth up with it. The shadows giving that voice motion, and all that they implied, sent a chill through Pakani’s gut that matched the one emanating from the air around the dwarf.
“Me favorite label,” the dwarf said wistfully. “Came tae pour one out, eh? Folks in tha Peak said ye’ve been comin’ each year.”
“I thought - oh, Light. I thought…” Pakani hadn’t stood yet. He might as well been pinned down by his friend’s very presence, and the heaviness on his soul that hurt to bursting.
“I thought I were dead too, Pecan. Guess I were fer a time, but I cannae remember a bit o’ that side. Let’s find a better place tae talk. I’ve been wantin’ tae fer a good while now.”
Pakani threw his arms around his friend in a hug, trying to ignore that glacially cold flesh, and the aura that sickened the grass growing around his friend’s empty grave.
“So, guessin’ ye can already tell with yer aura sense what I am now.”
The two of them - human-shaped and dwarf-shaped, not truly either - sat in one of the many glades of the Hinterlands, well and secluded. Spots of sunlight warmed them. A clear breeze moved the grasses, rustled the pines. No birds, however, chirped nearby.
“It’s… not as good as it used to be, but yeah.” Pause. “I - I’m sorry. Light, I’m so sorry, Bragden, I -” Pakani broke off. He hadn’t spoken of this to anyone, ever. He couldn’t tell a soul how it happened, how he failed to save his friend.
“Dinnae,” Bragden said. “Do yer kind apologize tae each other fer what tha orcs did? Ye did yer best. And I got up tae keep fightin’ again after, even if it weren’t by yer healin’ magic.”
“I should have tried harder. This -” Pakani balked again. “You shouldn’t…”
“Shouldnae what, eh? Och, I were tae die afore ye by a few hundred scores and ye know it. If it weren’t the Scourge, then a fat heart or a failin’ kidney, dryin’ up in an old man’s bed. I got tae die with honor, goin’ out fightin’. Now I get tae keep fightin’ fer as long as I feel like, as long as tha foes keep comin’.”
“But we… we put down so many. You can’t say - You don’t really believe - ”
“And we fought aside plenty too,” Bragden interrupted. “Pecan, dinnae try guiltin’ me intae hatin’ meself now. I know ye got more than enough o’ that habit on yer own time. I’m no Scourge monstrosity.”
Pakani’s head lowered, his shoulders dropping. “Your ancestors… Your clan… Your gryphon…”
Bragden was quiet a moment. That moment was startlingly silent without the dwarf’s breath to fill it. He could have vanished on the spot, if not for that shadow in the already-blackness of Pakani’s vision. Like a lodestone, heavy on the world. Or like a dead animal poisoning a watering hole.
“They dinnae need me where they went. Azeroth needs me. Ye do know tha Legion fell out o’ tha sky again?”
“I know.” Pakani took a deep breath. Same excuses he’d heard before. “But you didn’t come find me just to argue about beliefs, right?”
“Nay, lad. Came tae catch up. How’s life treatin’ ye?”
“It… it’s treating me.”
“Been on tha front lines? Flyin’ with more warriors?”
“No. I… retired, I guess. From that.” Pakani shifted his crossed legs, idly thumbed at the guidance cane across his lap. “I just wander now, healing, helping. Doing whatever I think someone needs. But not fighting. Mostly just, volunteering at infirmaries, orphanages, temples… Uh, I joined the clergy actually. Of the Light.”
“Oh aye? Fer real this time, nae just puttin’ on the cloth for secrecy’s sake?”
“Well, I mean, it started out that way, sure. But I also actually go to the churches and listen.”
“Huh. Wouldnae have thought ye’d get involved with tha mortal feel-good clubs. Whatever happened tae, ‘By the Life-binder! O Big Mama’s Long Red Whiskers!’?”
Pakani snort-laughed despite himself. Bragden chuckled, and Pakani heard in that voice the familiar lop-sided smile.
“Well, that’s not that common for humans to say, is it?” Pakani said. “I had to drop a lot of habits. Like, I can’t exactly go around referring to everyone as 'puny mortal’.”
“Hunhf. Wit do ye care?”
“That’s… a good question. I just…” Shrug. “Easier to fit in. As in, acting 'normal’ makes fitting in easier, and fitting in is easier than trying to - to be… Something I really haven’t been in a long time anyway.”
“…Aye.” Bragden’s voice softened. “We’re prospectin’ down tha same tunnel there, as they say.”
“Braggs, you and I both know that exactly zero people have actually said that.”
The dwarf’s grin came back. “They have now!”
“And then tha damned second roc I hadnae noticed kicked me right in tha saronite britches and sent me rollin’ down fifty leagues o’ cliffside like a frosty boulder. I kept a hold on that egg like it came out me own arse, shieldin’ it with every magic rune I got. I was layin’ there on tha bottom, waitin’ fer tha world to stop playin’ merry-go-round fer an hour.”
Pakani bent over double in laughter. “All that for an omelette?!”
“Nay just AN omelette, lad!” Bragden’s armor creaked as he gestured widely. “Were tae feed tha entire village, and these Highmountain were nae small folk! Och, but wouldnae ye know it, I got tae me feet, took two steps, tripped on a damned root and went down on tha egg like a hammer and anvil.”
“No!” And laughter overtook them both again.
“Och… nay seen so much yolk in me life… Think I’m still finding dried bits in me armor. Aah…” Bragden leaned back as his chuckles subsided. “Speakin’ o’ eggs, ye found any lady-dragons yet?”
“I -” Pakani’s laughter slowly faded. “What?”
“Well? Any wee whelplings around tae call me Uncle Braggs?”
“I - um. No. You -” Pakani frowned. “You don’t know? We can’t… anymore.”
“Run that by me again? Can’t what? Make love?”
“Oh, Light.” His face burned with a flush. “No, that’s - No, that’s all fine. We just can’t have - offspring, anymore.”
“Wha? Why nae?”
“Deathwing,” Pakani said with a roll of his shoulders. “The short version is when the other Aspects used up their power to defeat him, well, it kind of… crippled the rest of us too. Some kind of fail-safe the Titans put in, I guess. Who knows why now, since Malygos’s death didn’t - ah, nevermind. It doesn’t matter.”
“I know that tone. It does matter, tae ye.”
Sigh. “Look, yeah, okay, it does. But I can’t do anything about it. Like I can’t do anything about a lot of things. That’s how it is, right? You just keep moving on, moving forward, you do what you can. I can’t have kids of my own, so I take care of orphans. I can’t see, so I carry a cane now.”
Bragden mirrored the sigh. “And tha same fer me, remember.”
Pakani’s terseness melted off again. Bragden had lost a lot when they met - his gryphon, raised from a hatchling, had died, and his long-time lover had left him when he proposed to her. The dwarf always talked about finding “a strong lass with even stronger thighs” to carry on his clan’s bloodline after the wars.
“We’re different in as many ways as I got hairs in me beard, but we’ve been through many o’ tha same hells, too.”
“Ye’re one o’ tha few old comrades I still got, Pakanistrasz. Sure, I’ve got tha Ebon Blade now, but ye know it ain’t tha same. Just like ye never stick tae one temple fer long afore movin’ on again.”
The Ebon Blade. Pakani tried to ignore its name again, as he tried to ignore his own name, only used when Bragden was about to ask something in dead seriousness. There were still a few too many elekks in the room, and Pakani didn’t want to address them.
“Some o’ the Blades got themselves some new mounts,” the dwarf went on.
“I heard about the Deathlord breaking into the Ruby Sanctum, you mean?” Pakani said tightly.
“Or leading a huge pack of feral undead into one of our graves so they could desecrate it? Or raising a pack of our cousins in Stormheim?”
Bragden held a chilly silence for a while again. Pakani couldn’t tell if this was shame or… what.
The death knight finally spoke. “Aye. I heard, too. And ye know, as soon as I did, I thought o’ ye.”
Pakani let out a long breath. “And that’s why you came looking for me?”
“I couldnae fer a long time. I weren’t up tae facin’ ye, even though ye cannae see me. Pecan, I were thinkin’ over how it used tae be. How good a team we were in Northrend. Yer no gryphon, but - Grandpappy Harlunn’s ghost forgive me sayin’ so - gryphons don’t rank next tae drakes.”
Pakani managed a thin smile. “Well, I’d hope not. Even a blind dragon should have an edge over an animal.”
“Aye, lad. Pecan, ye been losin’ yerself fer years. Ye think ye nae fit fer dragonkind anymore, on account o’ tragedies outside yer power. Fate dealt ye a bad hand, but it led ye to takin’ a bitter warrior like me intae battle, and I wouldnae have traded yer companionship fer any other. Aside from tha one obvious bit at tha end, we were marvelous, aye?”
The priest went quiet now.
“Dinnae live out yer immortality like a transient, bumblin’ o'er social graces and kissin’ tha arses o’ humans who nae lived half yer years!”
“It’s not -”
“Dinnae ye miss it? Bein’ a force o’ nature? Ownin’ tha sky! By hell, I know I do. A Wildhammer’s nae meant fer horses.”
“I - Yes, but -”
“Join me, Pakani. Again. But better. With yer holy fire and me unholy frost, we’d be unstoppable! We’d send tha demons runnin’ like rabbits!”
“Stop interrupting!” Pakani rubbed his head. “Let me think, just…”
Truth was, he did miss it. For all the horror of being used by the Horde the same way, the synergy he had as a war mount for Bragden had been exhilarating. A brief window of vigor, of… feeling useful. Of righting wrongs in the world, destroying the undead, fighting back the blue dragonflight, and every other evil that rose up in those days. Because, by the gods, he had so many wrongs to atone for.
Destroying the undead. That’s righting a wrong. Fixing a mistake in the universe. Putting away something broken, and letting the planet heal from its very existence.
I can feel him like a wasp. I can feel the rot his bones long for, and the shadow that holds them fast to this realm, away from the earth they should have rejoined years ago. I can feel the ache of the life around him. He’s a wound on Azeroth’s surface, an infection in Eonar’s essence, a wrongness that can’t see itself for what it is.
“I… can’t,” Pakani said finally, quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“Och, ye got nae nests to settle,” Bragden huffed. “And if it’s about yer eyes, ye already know I’m good fer steerin’ ye on tha wing.”
“No - Bragden. Don’t push this, please? We can just be two friends who catch up and chat and maybe help each other out, but I…”
How do you tell your best friend his existence is an offense to your maker? You don’t, that’s how.
“Ye’re wastin’ yerself like this,” Bragden said, jumping to his feet. “Yer no two-bit altar boy! Ye breathe fire! I saw ye tear Nerubians apart with yer bare claws!”
“I can’t.” Pakani moved to stand.
Bragden’s gauntlet snapped around Pakani’s wrist, sending a painful chill through his hand.
“Ye can if ye join,” the death knight said.
“Wh-” He yanked his hand away. “What?”
“I can do this fer ye, Pakani. Like tha Deathlord did. I’ve got magic now, too. I can share these gifts with ye, and we’ll neither of us die again.”
A new chill, of horror, ran down all through Pakani’s spine and stomach. He took several steps back. “What the hell, Bragden? W-what the actual hell?!”
“Pah! Ye’d get yer eyes back too. What’ve ye got tae lose now, eh? Cannae have eggs, dinnae have friends -”
“You think I’d just turn into some - some undead thing just because of -?!”
“Och, ye play tha part o’ tha holier-than-thou well! Got just enough o’ yer scaly arrogance tae think yer too good fer tha grave?”
Pakani couldn’t believe the words coming from his friend’s mouth. But they’re not coming from my friend’s mouth. Whatever the hell is there in front of me, it’s not my friend anymore.
“What happened to you, Bragden? You’d never… this - You told me if you ever turned, to kill you! You said you’d never want to be like this!”
“We said a lot o’ things. Ye goin’ tae kill me then?”
“No! Gods! But why would you think I’d ever want to be like that? It’s against everything I ever believed, everything I was made for!”
“Made by who? The gods are dead! Sarge cut the Titans tae pieces, and Azeroth’s next if we let him! Stop bein’ a self-loathin’ layabout wastin’ time givin’ bread tae beggars, and make a real damned difference!”
Pakani still moved away, as quickly as he could in a half-strafe with his cane to the front and side in rapid swishes through the grass, his other arm held out to block stray tree branches.
“Y-you sound insane. I don’t know what they did to you, the Scourge, or the Ebon Knights, or whatever, but they got in your head and they made you not yourself - Just, stay back. Stay back!”
“Nae, Pecan. I woke up. Och, I died in cold agony. I weren’t dead yet when they started eatin’ me liver, and dinnae ask me how I know that’s what it were.” Bragden followed, slowly. “I died prayin’. And then I woke up. Nae fear like a tyke clingin’ to a marm’s apron when tha cupboard’s bare. Nae cold nor pain. I died all muddy and shakin’ and torn up, and woke up feelin’ more whole and crystal-clear than ever in me life.”
“Oh, gods. By the Light, you sound just like them, Bragden! The Scourge!”
“Nay, but it’s easier tae wake ye up than tryin’ tae explain. It dinnae hurt fer long.”
Pakani heard the scrape of swords being drawn, and he leaped wildly aside, barely dodging the death knight’s attack. He focused his power in a superheated shield, a bubble that’d burn any foe that got close - hopefully, only the one foe, but he couldn’t discount ambush parties now. With that, the priest turned and ran, arm over his face and cane whisking back and forth.
“Och!” Bragden trampled after him. “Ye’re only makin’ it difficult!”
That moment’s distraction was nearly fatal. Pakani clotheslined himself neatly on a low-slung branch to the stomach, bending over double. His defenses excluded innocent plant-life by default.
A second later and the shield sizzled against rapid strikes, and then tore with a flashing flare of expended heat, the next strike hacking into Pakani’s arm before he had time to react. A death knight’s reflexes were supernatural, a blind man’s less so.
He fell and flung a lash of holy light - or draconic light, honed to a blade’s edge by years in temple service - and heard Bragden stumble back. Pakani dashed again, this time drawing the magic inward, innervating himself with the energy to pump his legs faster. He careened wildly through the woodland, at times practically flying over drops and ledges like a goblin with a rocket boost. He fell again and again, no amount of magic able to compensate for the inability to see a goddamn thing.
Bragden ran relentlessly after him, saronite boots clunk-clunking like a golemic heartbeat. Pakani just barely kept ahead through magic bursts of speed, but couldn’t orient himself, figure out the woods or run for civilization. He just had to pray he’d find it through sheer luck - as opposed to finding a lake or a drop-off cliff.
“Damn it all, quit runnin’!” came the shout, then a noise like muffled lightning or tearing canvas.
Ice clasped around Pakani’s body. He sucked in a hissing breath. Bragden jogged up from behind.
“B-Bragden - please. Don’t do this.” As Pakani spoke, he emanated heat, trying to melt the ice.
“When ye cast off yer ailin’ scales and see with new eyes, ye’ll thank me.”
“No! No, I won’t! I know there’s magic that can fix my vision, and none of it’s good! I could take the Shadow, or the Fel, or anything, and I know I’d be stronger, I’d get back all the power that leeched off when the Aspects lost theirs, but it doesn’t matter because it’s wrong! And even if I did thank you, it’s not - it won’t be me, I’ll be dead, you’ll just wake up a thing that looks and sounds like me, and on the inside the real me will be screaming to go free!”
Bragden paused. “Is that what ye think I am, Pakani?”
“I - didn’t. But if this is what the Ebon Blades or the Forsaken or any of you are really like? If this - if you 'wake up’ with your brains so scrambled you throw away your beliefs and feel thankful for what happened to you, so much you want to do it to everyone else?” Pakani twisted his head to look at where he knew Bragden’s eyes were. “Then whatever’s gone wrong with you can’t be fixed except by putting you back in the ground for good.”
“Ye can talk a nice talk, Pecan. But ye know I’m nae doin’ this fer shites and giggles? We need all tha strength we can gather if we have any chance o’ stoppin’ tha Legion.”
“Oh, sure, you need so much strength you go around killing dragons and attacking Light’s Hope Chapel. I bet mowing down a bunch of Lifewarders and Argent Dawnbringers really did wonders against the Legion.”
“Shut yer trap, lizard! Ye weren’t there! Ye blind fool, and I mean blind in tha brain!” Bragden shouted. There was no malice in his words, only the sound of frustration.
“Braggs… if you are my friend. If the real you that cared about me is still in there? You’d respect my wishes. You’d let me live my life, and die my death, on my terms, and let me stay dead, feeding the earth. That is how a red dragon dies with honor. It doesn’t matter if Alexstrasza isn’t an Aspect or Eonar isn’t… there anymore, we were still made with a purpose.”
“Aye, that we were. I was made with a purpose too. Were I an earthen, I’d walk tha earth forever tae fight tha enemies o’ Azeroth. But we were abandoned, Pakani. Left alone tae turn soft and fleshy, goin’ mad and dyin’, losin’ our future kin. But I walk tha earth forever now. I got back tha gifts my ancestors lost. And now I’m sharin’ them with ye.”
Bragden stepped closer, and Pakani burst from the icy cage in the same moment he burst from his human form. A whorl of smoke surrounded him as a sinuous neck on a lithe body stretched upward. His clubbed tail swung once and bowled Bragden over. With a powerful downbeat of leathery wings, the drake took to the air.
He had three seconds to enjoy the thrill of flight before dark, choking energy grasped his limbs and throat, whipped him back, and slammed him into the ground.
The death knight wasted no time in attacking. Twin blades coated with biting shadowfrost lashed at Pakani. He lashed back, flailing with his talons and pulling back his head as he tried to find his footing. His foreleg felt too heavy, a cold numbness seeping through his muscles - the arm Bragden had cut. The same feverish chill worked its way in through every new injury. If he tarried, he’d lose all hope of escape.
“Where’s yer fire, dragon? Yer holdin’ back!” Bragden taunted as Pakani flung him away again. No matter how many times the death knight was slashed or knocked away, he kept getting back up.
“Just stop! Stop!” Pakani tried again to fly away, but one of those wicked swords caught his wing in the downbeat. He shrieked as the membrane tore in twain.
“If ye meant it, ye’d give me a real fight!” Bragden pushed the advantage, darting around, slashing and spelling at Pakani too quickly for the blind drake to block.
“I d- augh! I do! Dammit! I don’t want to kill you!”
“Then ye should have saved me!”
A blade made to plunge through Pakani’s throat glanced off the side of his claws in a lucky block. He grasped the burning blade, blood welling up where it cut into his palm, to join the rest of the blood already running over his scales. The second blade swung, and he snapped his jaws onto it. Bragden barked swears and tried to yank them back, but the dragon held fast.
I’ll save you now, old friend. I’ll fix this the only way I can.
Pakani pulled the swords in and let them go in the same motion. Bragden tried to pull back with all his strength and promptly fell backwards, and Pakani pounced with both forepaws, dropped his jaw and let out a massive gout of searing flame. If Bragden screamed, the sound was drowned out by the force of the dragon’s roar.
Pakani breathed until he couldn’t anymore. The armor had melted. Nothing was left of the body inside except ash.
He stumbled away and collapsed, sides heaving. With what little energy he had left, he suffused himself with restorative magic, slowly closing the worst of his injuries. After several long minutes of lying there fighting to stay conscious, he staggered to his feet and took on his human form again, clothes reformed and cane in hand.
He stood there staring at the emptiness several minutes more. No more did a deeper darkness squirm. The air was clear at last.
He thought of saying something over the remains, but he already did that at the funeral years ago. He simply sat down again and wept.