Mar 14 2006

Spitelash Fever

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Note: The following is classified as a “Living Document.” That means I get to make changes and fix bits whenever the mood strikes me. ;)

 

 

I. Blood Elves

It’s terrible like that. You hop a night-flying gryph to Menethil Harbor only to wake up the next day in South Shore nestled beside some surly gryphon with glittering eyes clacking her beak indignantly at you. You have to wonder how in the blazes of Ragnaros you got there…

The night elf silenced the stream of babble in her head just long enough to focus on her target. An ancient hatred swelled like the rising tide within her; a hatred predating her by 10 millennia, passed from generation to generation through blood, and myth, and magic. Thundering along side it came rage and bloodlust, the pair of them always eager to wreck her concentration. Together they embodied a hunger for vengeance that she’d never truly understood. Her first instructor, the huntress Ayanna, did understand, and in ways only old blood could. It gave Ayanna the foresight, wisdom, and patience to transform young apprentices into exceptional hunters. For that, Neece could only be grateful.

With a practiced, steadying exhalation, she quelled the emotional onslaught. Another step brought her prey into full view, away from the stand of birch saplings flanked by red and gold leafed maples that afforded minimal protection along the rolling headland of Azshara. Slender, tapered fingers relaxed as she aimed, swung the bow to ready, and drew back a newly waxed string. Both her draw and release were beautiful, her execution perfect and, in response, the arrow flew true.

A moment later, a blood elf surveyor yelped as the jagged arrowhead pierced her left eye and sank past the socket. The arrow stopped deep in her skull with a slick, wet pop that sounded to Neece too much like a human kiss. The surveyor staggered backwards, clawing at the arrow.

The huntress crouched low, watching as the crimson-robed figure crumpled into the grass and lay motionless. As if from nowhere, the image of an undead skull sprang unbidden to the hunter’s mind. It puckered a lipless mouth, laughing maniacally and blowing kisses at her while the shaft of an arrow protruded from one eyeless socket. With an involuntary shudder, Neece huffed and dismissed the grotesque vision.

Something about the air today was just not right.

Nocking a new arrow, she prowled forward again, hoping the scream hadn’t roused further attention. Her mind drifted and strayed, more fervently now, such that it shifted from thought to image or thought to thought with almost manic abandon. The heavy book shifted, too, shoving her pack forward off her hip. With a snort, she hooked her elbow around the shoulder strap and thrust the bag back into place. The image of the book’s ornate cover flashed in her mind. At its center sat the head of a naga in relief, surrounded by symbols and designs in a language Neece didn’t understand. The naga’s eyes were closed; it should have been at peace, but its pinched expression was anything far from serene. It gave her the distinct impression that it might bite her arm off if given the chance. Or perhaps swallow her whole.

The sooner she handed the book over to Aurora in the plaguelands, the better.

It’s terrible, the voice resumed, a hiss against the inner wall of her ear. They tell you the war is over, but you know it’s not. In the end you’ll lose; it slowly squeezes the life from you. And you, no longer immortal…

The night elf tossed her head and yipped, trying to fling the voice away. Visibly shaken, only then did she realize how heavily her heart galloped against her ribs. Sweat painted strands of violet hair to the underside of her chin and along the sides of her neck. Her tongue felt thick and heavy; it clicked against the back of her throat whenever she swallowed.

She paused, listening, straining to know the world beyond the cacophony in her mind. Long ears stretched gracefully, emphasized by the augmentation of her helmet. A kindly blacksmith had slotted each of its sides just to accommodate those hallmark ears. Today the helmet fit like a vise, though. Big, hot, sweaty — bearing down on her skull as though it might crush it.

She continued probing the air, straining to see all and needing to determine the source of every sound. Every snap of a twig made her heart lurch against her ribs. The breeze was light and the day cool, but not so cold as to be unpleasant. Still, it carried a foul stench. Across it came the occasional stomp of a mosshoof courser or the click of a beak as a wild hippogryph snapped at biting flies. These, too, made her flinch.

Pull yourself together, elf.

Azshara had remained beautiful despite haunted highlands and its constant autumnal state. Here nights grew cold, yes, but the days were usually warm and dry like early fall, and the weather today was no different. Though perhaps not as bleak as the Barrens, the early grasses struggled, never really managing to stay green. If they matured at all, they faded soon afterwards. Same with most of the trees — at least the deciduous ones — birches and maples shed red and gold foliage year round. Even some of the older pines grew rusty or yellow.

The Timbermaw and Legash didn’t seem to mind. The furbolgs took up residence in the cliffs and hills to the northwest, claiming Ursolan and Bear’s Head as their own. At daybreak, traveling up from the Bitter Reaches, across the easternmost tip of the headlands to the north, Neece and Conk had had to slip past a camp bustling with demon Legashi. The Legash were even more territorial than the demons occupying the Haldarr encampment she’d run into at the southern wing of the region.

And there were naga. Loh’atu, the tauren bull she’d met earlier in the week, called them Spitelash. They claimed the shores of the Bay of Storms as their own. The naga were likely the fiercest of this region’s inhabitants, perhaps only second to the dragonkin. Their days consisted of scouring the ruins of Eldarath in search of ancient magical artifacts. They attacked any and all who dared to wander too close to the ruins or their encampments.

It amazed the elf that even cursed and with the mutations they’d suffered, the once Highborne elves still drove themselves to frenzy over a few magic trinkets. Inhaling, she tilted her head to feel the warmth of the sun play against the ridge of an ear. She loved the night, as any night elf did, but she delighted in the sunlight, too. The sun and moon, these were her magic.

Here in Azshara, the city of Zin-Azshari once stood as a brilliant, teeming night elf metropolis. But, little remained of it now. She knew the stories, of course. Every night elf could recite the lore forward or backward. They heard stories of devastation, of the Great Sundering from the moment they breathed their first breath. Sentinels tested young elves, quizzed them on the effects of magic, scowling darkly at anyone showing the slightest affinity for the arts.

Ten thousand years before, the night elf queen, Azshara, and the Highborne betrayed the rest of the world. Their addiction to the magic within the Well of Eternity had wrecked their senses and left them vulnerable to the greed of one even more corrupt: the titan, Sargeras. If only they’d left well enough alone…

Neece sighed softly. If only. Perhaps there’d be no orcs, or undead, no ogres, or even plague and corruption. She knew better, though. The Well of Eternity was irresistible ambrosia to the power-mad Sargeras. At least … she was convinced he’d have found his way here, regardless.

With an even heavier sigh, she turned back to the fallen surveyor. A thin string of blood pooled from the punctured eye and vanished into dusty earth. Despite the arrow protruding from her head, she looked tranquil and beautiful, even in death. Blood elves often did, though, and Neece envied them the delicate perfection of their shorter, more gracefully upswept ears.

Transferring her bow to one hand, she set her boot heel against the surveyor’s throat and grasped the arrow. With a quick twist, she yanked it free, and then swiped the tip along the coarse grass. Its tip needed replacing now, but she could still salvage the shaft.

Rummaging through the folds of the surveyor’s robes, she whispered softly to the dead elf. “You wouldn’t want to live forever anyhow,” she said. “Not in this mess. Trust me.”

She tucked an almost new pair of gloves into her belt. The way her hand tingled once she touched them, she suspected they were only recently enchanted. Mana almost always vibrated perceptibly, but especially once bonded to inanimate things. The imbued gloves would auction well. She managed to salvage a few bits of runecloth, too, and this pleased her; the cloth usually sold quickly in Ironforge. She had even more cause for delight when she uncovered a small pouch of coins.

Behind her came excited snuffling and Conk’s low, happy grunts. She’d rescued the longsnout years ago from that creepy gnoll camp on the outskirts of Elwynn Forest, had tended his wounds and kept him fed while he convalesced. In return, he’d given her years of service; he’d been a steadfast companion and protector.

Sometimes, she believed he was the only friend she had.

She chuckled softly, if a little enviously, as she watched him devour the remains of a spit-roasted quail. She was more cautious, though, more vigilant in peering over boulders and between low-hanging branches where shadows were more apt to obscure signs of danger. She sniffed, testing and tasting the wind from different directions for new or familiar scents.

“My friend,” she whispered to the boar, “I’m amazed that you never fall prey to indigestion.” He snorted in response, the end of his tail wagging at her. She wondered if it indicated that he understood her joke or if he merely mocked her. She shrugged, giving him another half smile; at least one of them had a full belly.

Without warning, a fireball exploded against her back.

Searing hot, it struck like a blacksmith’s hammer, leaving her winded and making her ears ring. She tucked and rolled to keep from falling, hissing as hot mail burned away parts of her undershirt, melting skin wherever it touched. She twisted and rose to a knee with her bow raised, but a second fireball skewed her aim. She barked miserably, shielding her eyes as red-orange flames enveloped her and hot metal links branded more flesh.

She scrambled forward, one hand clutching her bow and the other shoving her upright from the ground. Pellets of grass and earth sailed past her head and, as she reeled back, she saw Conk charging, his head low to the ground as he rushed the caster. A reclaimer, she thought, or possibly a magus. She couldn’t tell for sure; they often wore similar black and scarlet robes and many practiced the same spells. But magic wielded by the magi was significantly more potent, and lucky for Neece, too, or the blood elf hurling fire at her might’ve killed her already.

This new assailant still meant to do just that. Her face twisted into a fierce scowl as she successfully ducked not one, but two of Conk’s assaults and deflected the first of Neece’s arrows. Even so, a second arrow ripped into her right thigh. She bellowed like a tauren bull, rage transforming her red eyes into glassy flints. She spit the opening phrase to a healing spell between clenched teeth while one of her hands gripped the arrow and tore it from her leg. At the same moment, Conk landed a new attack, tearing a thin gash from her mid-calf to the knee. The reclaimer swatted at him with the fletched end of the arrow as she lurched forward, her gold hair matted and flying about her face like tattered lace, but she continued uttering the spell.

Squeezing one eye shut, Neece drew back and carefully aimed her bow. Now that Conk and the pain of her wounds distracted the reclaimer, Neece had time. Time to relax and breathe into her shot; time to make her arrow sing. The world beyond dissolved to the thrum of her heartbeat and the frame of her target. Conk dove again. She fired. The arrow sang; the bowstring twanged; she followed through.

An anguished cry set Neece’s hair on end. The reclaimer never finished the spell.

Neece darted over the grass, nearly collapsing in a heap as she crashed into the other elf and slammed her to the ground. Alarm spread as shouts echoed through the base camp nestled on the hillock above. She glanced over a shoulder and saw half a dozen elves clambering down the hillside. Of all the bad luck! She whispered a prayer to Elune, wondering if new elves spoke the old tongue.

Snatching up the pouch the dying elf dropped, she whistled for Conk and set off running as fast as her heavy gear allowed. Soon, she’d have reason to wonder at the insanity of giving up leather armor. That damnable book slowed her down, too. As much as she longed to pitch it aside and run from it, she clutched it tighter against her body as she ran. It was her duty, her responsibility, and she’d finish the task whether she liked it or not. Or, she’d die trying.

The boulder she raced towards looked smaller than she anticipated. It angled slightly upward, obscuring any viewpoint beyond. In her flight, Neece failed to notice the severity of the drop beyond the rocky outcrop. She pitched headlong down the escarpment and tumbled with all the grace of a gnomish backfire. It was a battle to keep hold of her bow and fire blazed in her wounds each time she landed against them. Finally, though it seemed she might tumble without end, Neece smashed to a stop against the bole of a tree.

She ended face down. Rearing back, she checked her trail of followers. Still intent on catching her, three of the six blood elves vaulted over the blade of rock and skated to the gravel below. The tree that had broken her fall heaved against her side. Stomping the cloven hoof, the satyr whooped with demented laughter. Neece squeezed her eyes shut and listened with her whole being: the sound of a blade being unsheathed.

Of all the bad luck!

“Eat fire!” She shouted as she rolled out from under his attack. A dark blur streaked over her body and Conk struck the satyr as he landed, slashing at it with a full side of tusks, driving it back away from his fallen friend. Neece forced herself to her feet and the horizon tilted severely in her vision. The boar continued to heckle the Legashi rogue long enough for her to escape.

See? War. Die now, night elf!

Neece cried and clawed at the thing inside her head as she angled westward and ran. Conk squealed and grunted behind her, but she couldn’t look back. Not far in the distance before her, a troll hunter stood, poised at the edge of the Legashi camp. He’d drawn his bow and now aimed it at her. He was a tall, blue-skinned monstrosity with one huge, magenta plume rising in thick waves from the crown of his head. Giant tusks peeled his lips back into a perpetual grin and to Neece it seemed he leered at her. She sneered back.

The voice cackled inside Neece’s head and sickness seized her wholly. I can still choose my death, she thought and aimed straight for the troll. She drew nearer, could even see fringe decorating his gloves, and wondered what in the blazes he was waiting for. Was it that her energy lagged? That if he waited just two or three more steps he wouldn’t have to waste the arrow to kill her?

Flanked by the Thalassian blood elves to her left and the Legashi rogue struggling to reach her despite Conk’s attacks, Neece plunged forward. “Stupid troll,” she spat at him, though her voice was little more than a croak. “Fire!”

She dropped to her knees, thinking, grace of Elune, just let it end. The troll’s arrow split the air above her head.

CONK!

Filled with dread, she twisted around. The motion forced her from her knees, leaving her prone in the rough grass. The troll’s arrow found its mark, not in Conk, but in the belly of the satyr. The great gray-blue demon careened momentarily, its eyes wide and surprised. It scratched at the arrow, teetered, and swayed. Then, it fell. Wasting no time, the troll fired again. His arrow struck a blood elf so hard it lifted her into the air and slammed her back into the ground. She was dead before she landed. The others turned and fled, retreating to the safety of their camp.

Neece sank into the grass, letting her bow slip from her grasp. Around her the trees spoke in hushed whispers and she heard the buzz of nearby flies, but beyond that, the day seemed oddly quiet. I choose my own death, she thought, and I live. Her head swam while the world around her melted into watery images. They were no longer real, those images, just impulses that danced and shivered beyond her vision. The fabric of another, alter-world reality ripped with a slow, maniacal rasp and a wretched, claw-shaped thing reached out for her. The waves of a black ocean rose up from deep within Neece. Oh, shut up! I have your secrets now, she thought defiantly at the once-highborne thing and then turning, swam into the depths of her own delirium.

 

 

04/21/06 – Updated description of book cover. Before, it was too telling without being descriptive enough. Various small edits to clear up my bad punctuation and grammar!

03/16/06 – reworked wording in second paragraph. Flow into third paragraph is much smoother now.

03/14/06 – Added more about the book and mentioned Aurora instead of leaving her part in the story a complete mystery. It helps add body to the plot, but I’m still not sure where too much information collides with tension and mystery. But, at least there is a better idea of why Neece is in Azshara.

03/14/06 – Attempting this as a page. Not sure how that will fly.

02/22/06 – Used too many instances of “Neece”. I believe it was a reflection of my insecurity about having two same-sex characters together in the same paragraph and losing control PoV. I successfully removed several instances of Neece’s name, replacing some with “night elf” or simply “elf” and it seemed to help soften the harshness of the reading considerably.

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