WARNING: IRREGULAR POST AHEAD!
Regular readers will know I’m trying to write a novel, and have been for some time. As it happens I made some good progress on the editing front whilst I was away on holiday a few weeks ago, but I’ve not committed anything new for a while. That is, until last week, when as a result of much stress and a combination of other factors, a complete piece of Warcraft fiction simply fell out of my brain. I’d been trying to write my feelings on everything had transpired since Pandaria’s launch, and had failed to find a way to adequately voice my opinion. When I tried, this was what happened.
It is, in essence, a reaction to what is going to happen in the Vale in 5.4. It is a distillation of my disquiet and unhappiness at the current plot-line in game, and how (if I were a Dev) I’d deal with the fallout. What I absolutely was not expecting was this piece to take on a complete and total life of its own, which it subsequently has. So, here’s the deal. If you like this, and you feel you want to know more about the characters, I’ll write their story, because I know where that journey will take them all and what is likely to happen along the way. I’ll stick it separately on the site so it doesn’t interrupt the actual news stuff, but only if enough people want to know more, so this is where comments will be key.
I don’t normally specifically ask for feedback, but in this case I’d really appreciate any you can give, good OR BAD (I’m a big girl, I can take it.) If enough of you want it, I’ll make this story happen. If not, I promise never to speak of it again. I would like to thank the two people (you know who you are) who have given me feedback and editing on the original to get it to this point. I will never be able to thank you enough for your generosity. To M, who went utterly above and beyond the call of duty with his assistance, just NOT ENOUGH HUGS FOR YOU. Needless to say, this is the very essence of the awesomeness of this Community.
Without further ado…
Title: The Forfeit of the Living
Character/Pairing: My Hunter, and a Rogue I once knew. The other three comprise my imaginary five man of choice. Blizzard better be bringing Dungeons back in the next Expansion. Tinkering Gnomes are there for anyone to claim.
Rating: Suitable for all, including Trolls.
Summary: Sometimes, walking away is the option your conscience needs you to take. The Dwarf knows she’s in trouble, and the last person she expects to come save her is exactly the Rogue the Alliance choose to send…
Disclaimer: All these people live in a computer game owned by Activision and Blizzard. The one I play is mine in my mind only. I’ve probably said too much already.
She presses palms into tightly-shut eyes: there is still no escape from the inevitable.
The Inn’s noise is just that, background nuisance, events she can divide and identify without thinking. The two Gnomes engaging in raucous tinkering in the alcove, out of sight of the main bar. The Night Elf arguing with the Worgen on the finer points of glaive-wielding. The Human group in the front, excessively inebriated, murdering the same drinking song with the wrong third chorus for what was probably the twelfth time, but she was losing count. It was a good thing her crossbow was upstairs in her room, or else there’d be potential to get into even more trouble.
Residual senses spark: an unexpected patch of silence materialises, away to her right. Average height, waiting. She removes her hands and stares, focusing; recognition comes vaguely at first, then suddenly, definitive and damning. I should have known they’d dispatch you.
‘Your camouflage needs work.’
No-one’s spoken to her since she arrived, deliberate avoidance on her part, the need to effectively vanish whilst she tried to sort the jumble of unaddressed feelings in her head. She had been foolish to think that she’d stay hidden for long, but had clung to the possibility. Stormwind was still large enough to lose yourself within, if you knew where to begin. He stares, blue eyes suddenly full of what she knows isn’t disappointment, but satisfaction. His entire persona was designed to delude, only one of the reasons why SI:7 would have sent him. She knew him better. If he’d planned to distract her with frippery, to deceive with the most basic of weapons, she already had his measure. It was a game she’d miss if this were the last time they met.
She knows he’s waiting for her to respond before he moves. Safety from the familiar allows respite from her disquiet, a chance to focus away, albeit briefly.
‘You must know I’m absent without leave. I have a bounty on my head.’
There is the faintest hint of a smile, as if this is somehow more amusing than serious, and it occurs to the Dwarf that she’s not considered many consequences since she returned from Pandaria. ‘After a while, if enough people refer to you as a hero, you’ll believe them,’ she’d been told, as if this statement would make everything better, and allow her an opportunity to find peace in her own heart. She’d been a hero in the Wyrmbog, across the Outlands and in the frozen North, and never had she felt the title fitted her by rights. She was just a woman and a bear, doing what needed to be done, without the desire for a moniker, despite being handed so many in her time.
Northrend was where they first met, she remembers with more fondness than she thought herself capable. Sharper blades than she’d ever seen, poisons labelled in impossibly neat longhand. A wooden box, carved with dense ivy, handmade tools in dark and supple leather pouches. Attention to detail, meticulous care in every aspect of preparation; yet worryingly elusive, not simply when he vanished on the battlefield.
‘So, Assassin Crais, have you come to collect your coin?’
‘I come here to stand and marvel at the hunter who feigns whilst so many of her peers prepare for battle.’
He is both sober and armed, twin daggers camouflaged elegantly against worn battle leathers: the Dwarf knows she is at a disadvantage. Her pet is stabled for the night, no chance to call it as reinforcement. It is simply her and him. Without invitation Crais sits, deliberately taking the chair opposite. She remains alert, ready for anything; except what he then asks.
‘Tell me why you left.’
Immediately she wants to run, push the table away from him and camouflage into darkness, not ready to face the demons that demand her attention alone, let alone discuss them in the open. Tears prick, barely contained, cowering scared by the simplest of things: a question. The only response is a reflex, a desperate attempt to disengage.
‘I… I don’t know.’
Across the table, Crais ignores the part of him that could take from this, if the woman before him were anyone else than who she is. It would have been lazy to have avoided the truth, using his charm and ability to distract her. The rational portion of his brain is amazed, knowing he’d never succeed with that combo but still there is the desire to try. This Dwarf is never to be trifled with, and most certainly not to be considered as a potential conquest. She demands his respect, especially afraid and cornered.
‘Yes, you do.’
When she closes her eyes now, all she can see are the charred remains of the Vale. Her doing, despite the Horde’s culpability, something she alone might have prevented in the Jade Forest.It’s a lie, like so much else, a falsehood her mind needs to grasp, to hold onto what’s left of her sanity. For so long it was simply about winning, for the Alliance. The journey of loot and glory and ceremony, never dwelling on consequences, until the first day she arrived on the new lands and realised this was not a place in which to fight. It was a place to respect, and to love.
She doesn’t stop the tears this time, falling unhindered almost in relief as she puts her hands together, a fruitless attempt to cover the shaking. She is grateful that Crais simply lets her, because he needs to know how fragile she’s become. I am not a hero, and the rogue needs to properly grasp the depth of my guilt.
‘I never asked for a war. Not this time.’
He makes no move to comfort, even though he is compelled. She should be held, reassured, but he knows that’s scant support this deep into her turmoil. Pandaria is a marked change from the other battles he’s faced, a continent away from a clearly-defined enemy, despite what Wrynn’s rhetoric might suggest. He’s stood close enough to Proudmoore to smell the hate on her breath, despite her protestations to the contrary after Dalaran’s repossession. This fight has become far too personal for so many to simply be solved with a massive push on Orgrimmar. An entire continent has been irrevocably altered by the hands of the Horde and the Alliance, pulled into a war it never asked for. Peace-loving inhabitants of a land who allowed anger and hatred into one of its most sacred places, and then paid the price.
The loyalists might blame the Horde for this atrocity on the street corners of Stormwind, but Crais knew that it was only ever half the story, regardless of the conflict. This woman’s part in countless events was a testament to that.
‘I know what you believe, what happened the night you left. You didn’t see me, but I was there. Sky Admiral Rogers’ resentment is flawed: blank out the grey, focus on black and white. Nothing is ever that simple.’
She’s not interested in other people’s battles any more. There is no relevance in the concerns of the Alliance hierarchy, this is not their problem. Her conscience is her own to live with and no-one else’s to influence. The deaths she has seen numbered hundreds, ultimately thousands: the Wrathgate, the Temple in Shadowmoon, places she still can’t grasp she has visited. The Dragons have a lot to answer for, their meddling and manipulation of time often too complicated to truly grasp. At the core of it all, the beating heart of her anger, are the people she can no longer call as consul. Those whose lives have become forfeit.
‘It is simpler to remember the whole than the parts. Without them all, there is no point to anything.’
Crais knows he can’t win this fight, that her logic is unshakeable. He understands only too well the motivation, even if he’s never lost the desire to fight, the constant thrill of combat, battle and reward a mantra he repeats without thought. Ingrained into his body, flowing through his veins, he would do this until he died. There was no other life he wanted more.
‘I find the best way to honour my friends is to avenge their passing.’
He speaks with his heart, deliberately dismantled, the need for her to know his soul is unimpaired, that he understands this pain. Her response doesn’t surprise him at all.
‘My friends are dead, or missing, or have simply vanished as I had chosen to do. There is nothing left, except the understanding that this battle is one I simply am too tired to win alone.’
He grasps the extent of her forfeit, the terminal motivation. Crais understands the distance she places between everyone and herself isn’t simply because of her ancestry. He knew at least one of these friends she speaks of: the human Paladin he’d watched her bury after the disaster at the Jade Forest, the last of the people remaining that she’d fought with against Onyxia. Crushed beneath the giant statue meant to celebrate a rebirth, not one of the Pandarian healers had been able to save him, though they had all exhausted themselves trying. His death had hit her more than any other he could remember.
It was a blow from which she had not yet recovered, but she would. Crais should remind her this wasn’t simply her burden to shoulder.
‘You are not alone.’
She stares at Crais, through him, back to Randall’s face as he passed in her arms, unable to protect him in a land they had both agreed was a revelation. She tries to remember the name of every person they fought with: how they looked, what they loved to eat, the sound of their laughter in the times between. The forfeit of the living are the memories of the dead. Crais had told her that, she realises, a long time ago, at the Tournament Grounds. She’d asked him that night why she was never a target of his drunken desires, if he didn’t like Dwarven women. He’d replied with a brutal honesty that he’d never risk trying anything within six feet of her bear.
She knew that this was a human who considered her an equal, not a conquest. What she’d never been sure of was whether he was a friend. It might be time to stop assuming everyone was the enemy.
‘Rogers sent you for me?’
Now is the moment to shift towards her, for Crais to use himself to alter the dynamic.
‘Yes, but not to collect your bounty. I am to give you this.’
The scroll is spirited from his jacket with a flourish: Crais notes with satisfaction the theatricality is enough to raise a smile, albeit briefly. She’s tired like him, too many sleepless nights with dreams conjured by guilt and regret. He watches quietly as she reads Rogers’ apology, awareness that the Admiral had seen far less action than this Dwarf and should perhaps consider that dedication to the Alliance’s cause is worthy of more respect than it was initially given. Her body slowly relaxes as the scroll is digested, grasping her actions have not damned her to punishment. Everyone has blame to carry, not simply her.
Jaina herself had appeared the night he was to return to Stormwind, and had impressed on him the need for a cohesive unit in the days before the last push on Orgrimmar. Everyone was necessary, regardless of their personal allegiances, away from their feelings. There were perilously few female hunters left in the ranks to begin with, to lose one so prominent at this late stage would be a massive blow to morale. Dwarven allegiance was an issue too, this he knew from too long lingering at doors he shouldn’t.
Crais is acutely aware that the Alliance needed her. Did she still want to play her part?
‘I am indispensable?’
The smile this time is more rueful, the rhetoric idly aimed in his direction. He’s not sure how to respond: to him, her loss would be irreplaceable, but he doesn’t want to tell her that, not yet. He needs first to toe the faction line.
‘Lady Proudmoore herself-‘
‘Oh, don’t throw names at me. Jaina’s agenda is hers to live with. I’ve had enough of fighting under her flag, which Rogers was left in no doubt of when I departed. The problem is, I’m not sure what happens now she’s apologised.’
Crais isn’t surprised at the admission, and he knows she’s not alone in her thinking. She’s not settled on an alternative either, at least not yet. His next question has to be intrusive, an attempt to expose her intentions.
‘You’re too principled to be a mercenary. Don’t tell me you’re considering switching sides?’
The Dwarf knows the colour of her banner isn’t a hindrance to doing the right thing. Her desire to travel has always existed, and the destinations present a wealth of potential possibility. The Taurens have fascinated her for years, their life in the plains a world away from her birthplace in Loch Modan. To walk their land, to learn their methods, to track and hunt would be an ambition fulfilled. There are many ways to make a difference, after all, and not all of them would require her to even choose a side.
‘There is so much I would like to do, people who I may yet discover have new quests for me to complete. My only enemy is time, as it has always been. If all else fails, I could visit Harrison Jones: I know there’s fame and glory to be had in the Artifact business.’
Crais can’t help but laugh, but he knows there’s truth in her reasoning. He’s seen her happiest when there’s been history to uncover, the past to illuminate. She tells stories like no-one he’s ever heard, her past bought to life with a passion and vibrancy he’ll freely admit he could sit and listen to for hours. Now he wants to close the distance between them and has to fight his heart, rein back the automatic response. He didn’t come here for himself, but for her. He knows how much this matters, not simply for the mention of her name in a Troop Report or the sight of her face on the battlefield. She inspires people, they look to her for guidance. Her understanding of tactics is sound and without reproach. Her aspect lifts everyone in battle.
She had inspired him since the day Arthas finally fell.
‘Let me make you a deal. Accept this last fight with us, redress the balance in Pandaria and help us remove Garrosh. Once we’re done I’ll go into business with you. No more taking sides. You can choose who you want to work for, and I’ll follow you willingly.’
‘Like that would ever happen. There always has to be a reward for you.’
Her urge to indulge his fantasy is immediate, wondering who they might persuade to join them in such a fanciful endeavour. Perhaps Argus, whose skill with a shield and sword was only matched by his ability to throw really heavy stuff at moving objects with pinpoint accuracy. His heart was huge and his singing voice downright suggestive, but no-one ever got past him when he took his stance, not ever. Alyse’s skill as a herbalist and healer would be invaluable, but the Dwarf wasn’t sure if she’d like a life away from the Alliance’s banner. Perhaps there was the spark of rebellion behind the quiet Night Elf exterior, a history she’d love to unearth. There must be time made for discussions, because there was always the chance there’d be no tomorrow…
If she didn’t ask Fizz, of course, he’d turn her into a Sheep. Leaving him out of any discussion involving wealth and power never ended well…
‘A partnership wouldn’t be worth much without some support. We’d require more than just the two of us.’
Crais’ response is instant, a reflex. He already has his team picked, their loyalty assured. He’d known he might require backup if the Dwarf couldn’t be persuaded. Now, he understands, is the moment for the personal approach: to make her sense how much she is needed, not just by him. He leans forward, arms on the table, pressing the point in earnest.
‘Alyse, Argus and Goldfellow would follow you anywhere. They’re not the only ones.’
The Dwarf grasps for the first time in many, many months that she does have friends, there would be people to miss if she vanished. Perhaps she is just tired and lost, and needs to redirect her focus. Maybe the Rogue can teach her something more than how not to pick up women and to hide in plain sight. Not everything she does is directed to one aim, that constant goal: the protection of a World that seems too often covered in danger, fraught with perils. If she’s honest, that’s the last reason she’s here, after all this time. Her life is the people, their needs before hers. Maybe it is time to shift that around, if only for a while.
You can’t do everything alone.
The noise around her isn’t painful any more, and her stomach reminds her that a good meal should always be a priority. The Rogue will have one use, at least for tonight. Let her wake tomorrow and reappraise the land, conduct this discussion again in the daylight and without fear. If the proposition still appeared attractive, she would take Rogers’ offer. Not because the Admiral apologised, but for the use of Crais to deliver it, because he cared when she couldn’t. He’d done the legwork and picked a team for them, their choices meshing more than satisfactorily. With her bear peacefully asleep outside, anything might be possible.
When he smiled, she knew once more why she was here.
I will remember my friends with honour. My penance is a worthy forfeit.
‘You can buy me dinner and then explain why going into business with you would be such a good idea.’
Crais leans back in his chair, quietly pleased there’ll be no need to vanish for the rest of the evening.