Laenaris woke, as always, to the deep craving crawling its way into her mind like a monster from the abyss of sleep. It began as a jarring itch against her consciousness, like sharp nails scraping against a slate, ignorable with some effort. But ignoring the itch in favor of sleep only gave it strength in the acknowledgement. Feed me, it whispered incessantly. Laenaris opened her eyes, noting the transparent, eel-like body of a mana worm floating just outside her window. Was that what woke her? So close, so vulnerable. Perhaps just a taste of the magical energy it held in its body, just this once, a tiny taste, a filling taste . . .
NO. Those were the thoughts of an addict, the justifications of the Wretched. Laenaris lunged at the creature suddenly, and it vanished into the sunlight-gilded leaves beyond. She sat for a moment in her bed, shaking at the near brush with damnation. Time to meditate, like the rest of her people.
Over the course of the hour, her curse was her sole focus. All Blood Elves were cursed with the addiction to magic. It was a fact of life over the past few years, the very thing that made them what they had become. Three years ago, the undead Scourge had risen in the kingdom of Lordaeron to the south, under the helm of the powerful Lich King. From the ashes of Lordaeron they had come to Eversong Woods – to home. Once Eversong was a smoking ruin, the Scourge had turned to the Sunwell, and with its destruction came the arcane addiction.
It took no time at all to change into suitable clothes for the day. As she walked out of her room, she caught a glimpse of herself in her mirror, not that she really looked anymore. Flaming red hair was pulled tightly back into a knot, framing a long, freckled face. But those eyes! They had once been blue, now they glowed green with fel energy, the mark of a Blood Elf. She could hold the gaze of the stranger in the mirror for only a few seconds before looking away.
Laenaris had to walk past the open doorways of her siblings’ rooms to get to the stairs. The first room she passed once belonged to the eldest of her siblings, her sister Terea. A mage, she had been one of the few to avoid the arcane addiction. Like the rest of the remaining High Elves in the world, Terea had abandoned her sisters and brother. If Laenaris ever saw her again, she didn’t know whether she would embrace Terea or kill her then and there.
“She’s a traitor! Why should you care what happens to her things!” Voridan shouts at his sisters. He currently struggles to move, his destructive rage trapped by Laenaris’ headlock. Although he is the oldest, he has never been the strongest physically. Books lay strewn about on the floor, thrown when Voridan began to vent his rage.
“Yes, Terea betrayed us. But destroying her things will not make it better, you idiot! You’re only creating more work for us all!” Laenaris grits into her brother’s ear. She, too, fights back tears.
“Voridan, every High Elf who means something has denounced our people. You don’t know that she willingly was a part of it,” Cymdoril pleads. “Maybe someday, we’ll find out why she denounced us. But anger isn’t the way to go about it!”
That had been the last time either Laenaris or her siblings had been in that room. The books on magic and other arcane studies still lay strewn where they had fallen, collecting dust and worms. They would rot away to nothing before she went inside again.
The next room belonged to her other sister, Cymdoril. She had been the worst affected of all her siblings. Her addiction to demonic energies had robbed her of the holy connection to the Light all priests possessed, and thus killed her dreams.
“Who wrote that letter?” Laenaris asks.
“The lady Liadrin,” Cymdoril replies. Her long hair, a darker red than her sister’s, falls unbound behind her back. “Magister Astalor Bloodsworn found a way to grant Light-given powers to Blood Elves. Lady Liadrin has become a paladin, and she offers anyone who wishes the same gifts.” Cymdoril’s eyes shine with excitement. “I could serve the Light again, Laenaris!”
Laenaris had heard of these so-called Blood Knights from her friends. But her sister had looked happier than she had been in weeks at the idea of rededication to the Light, and so Laenaris had kept quiet. Cymdoril left for the ruins of Silvermoon soon after receiving the message. Her last letter placed her in the Eastern Plaguelands, fighting to establish a stronghold there. If Laenaris had been strong enough to tell her sister what she really thought about the Blood Knights, maybe Cymdoril would still be safe.
The last room belonged to her brother, Voridan. Apprenticed to a magister in the court of Prince Kael’thas, his power in magic was equal, if not greater, than his powers with the ladies. He had been among those called to arms in the aftermath of the Scourge, and left with characteristic haste.
“I’m going to Outland with Prince Kael’thas.” Voridan moves about his room, throwing robes into one bag and books into another. There were considerably more books than robes packed. His room is as unkempt as his wild indigo hair under the best of times; it is suffering under the whirlwind of packing activities.
“Why? You’ve heard what the orcs say of the place. What is there in Outland but deserts and demons?” Laenaris asks. Silently, she wondered how many girls he would be saying goodbye to.
“Prince Kael’thas believes that the answer to our curse could lie there too. Just think of it, sister, if what Kael’thas says is true there is enough arcane magic in Outland to last us for generations!” Voridan exclaims. He notices the look on Laenaris’ face, and pauses in his packing for a moment. “I know you and Cymdoril don’t want me to leave. But we have to trust our prince. Do you see any other way out of this curse? I don’t.”
Laenaris and Cymdoril had seen him off the next day. Voridan had journeyed south with what was left of the army of Quel’Thalas in a desperate bid to get to the Dark Portal to Outland. For months, they had heard nothing. Then, the worst news imaginable: Kael’thas had betrayed his own people, and made a deal with the very demons responsible for creating the Scourge. Many of his mages had defected once learning of their prince’s betrayal, but there was no way of knowing whether Voridan was among them.
Laenaris stopped in the kitchen just long enough to butter a slice of bread and snatch an apple off the shelf before stepping outside. She had packed a small backpack the night before with enough food to last her the rest of the day. The early morning sunlight turned the amber leaves of massive trees gold. Her house was on the very edge of Fairbreeze Village. The houses were all alike, round buildings of marble painted with gold and red accents. Spire-like towers rose up to the sky, topped with red crystals to power any magical appliances. Scarlet pennants draped a few buildings, most emblazoned with golden phoenixes. The inkeep opened her doors to the morning air, spotted Laenaris and waved. Laenaris waved back, but didn’t stop to talk. She had important business to attend to today.
Since Laenaris had first been able to comprehend the future, she had wanted to become a Farstrider of Silvermoon, serving under the Ranger-General to protect the inhabitants of Eversong Woods. That dream had died with her parents and High Elven Quel’Thalas, but her archery skills had not died with it. It had become a ritual of hers, to go out into the forest and kill whatever undead she could find near the Dead Scar to the east. Today it would be different. This time, when she reached the Dead Scar, she would not stop there.
It was easy to tell when she reached the plagued strip of land. The Dead Scar was created by the blight that followed the Scourge wherever they went, a physical manifestation of the undead corruption. It began far to the south, in Deatholme, and traveled all the way to the Sunwell far to the north. Nothing could grow on the Dead Scar, and the line of dirt split Quel’Thalas in two. The only motion the soil ever got was when it was trod down by the animated bones of undead. The skeletons of dead plants still waved in the wind.
It would be easier to just take the path north to Silvermoon and cross the Dead Scar there, under the protection of nearby rangers. But the agile and swift could cross it at any point, and Laenaris counted herself as both of these. She waited behind a tree until the coast was clear, then made a dash for the shelter at the other side.
Almost immediately, there was the rattle of bone on bone. A ghoul by the sound of it, an arrow to the brain should bring it down instantly. But now was no time to stop running, because if she stopped now she would never make it to the other side. At best, she would find her remains devoured by the ghoul and any of its compatriots nearby, at worst she would become one. Panting, Laenaris vaulted up the wall of the trench and spun around, nocking an arrow to her bow in the same motion. She didn’t even have to aim. The arrow went all the way through its rotting skull. The sheer force of the shot sent the walking corpse falling backwards. Another ghoul, attracted by the commotion, immediately forgot Laenaris and proceeded to cannibalize its comrade. Such was the way of the undead.
The East Sanctum passed by to her left as Laenaris ventured north and east into the woods. Soon, she found what she was looking for. A lynx, amber like its surroundings, slept in a patch of sunlight. Even hunters, who relied mostly on physical means to kill their targets, had some magic to aid them, and all hunters knew the spell to subjugate a beast to one’s own will. As long as it was a creature the spell could work on and the hunter had a beast’s attention, just about anything could be tamed.
Here goes nothing. Laenaris stepped out of the undergrowth, into the sight of the great cat. Its head jerked up with a growl. But before she could even finish casting the spell, an arrow whistled into the cat’s side. It roared and spun about as a dragonhawk dove out of the bushes in attack.
Dragonhawks were curious creatures, unique to Quel’Thalas. They had scaled, serpentine bodies and massive, fan-like wings. Their heads resembled a cross between a dragon and a bird of prey, hence the name. Most were orange and red, but there were other varieties. Dragonhawks flew all their lives, only resting on the ground to sleep. This one, however, was not wild. Another Blood Elf stepped out behind the dragonhawk. The sight of the arrogant smirk on his angular face only stoked Laenaris’ anger.
“That wasn’t yours to kill!” Laenaris exploded at her old rival. Sadis Daysky only smirked all the more.
“You looked like you were in danger. I can’t just leave a pretty lady to fend for herself,” he said. “Why did you come this far east, anyways?”
“I can defend myself just fine, thank you,” Laenaris replied venomously. “You saw what I was doing. I’d tell you to use your brain, but sometimes I don’t know if you have one.”
“Ouch, lovey has a bite,” Sadis remarked, glancing at his dragonhawk. “Keep away from this one, Pyros, she might actually kill you just to spite me.”
“You’d just tame another one,” Laenaris stated flatly.
“You know me too well.” Sadis tilted his head, whether granting the point or saying goodbye Laenaris did not know. “I’ll see you around, Laenaris. Do try to pick a beast that won’t die on you next time.”
He didn’t even bother skinning the lynx. Laenaris took the skin for herself, the leather could fetch some money if she didn’t use it herself or trade it away. The meat would be good food for whatever beast she did end up taming. She made a point to walk in a different direction than the one Sadis had swaggered along.
Laenaris did not find another suitable companion as she walked further south, but she did collect more leather and meat. The day could still be counted productive, though her primary mission succeeding seemed less and less likely as the day dragged on. As the shadows of the trees began to lengthen somewhat, she found herself sitting on the upper banks of the Elrendar river just before the falls, cooling her feet after the long day.
Suddenly, shouting! What was going on? Sadis burst out of the bushes at a run, then turned around and fired an arrow at the woods beyond. A forest troll, green-skinned and hunchbacked, staggered out of the bushes, howling a war-cry. Sadis’ dragonhawk moved forward to attack the wounded troll. Other shouts grew nearer as Sadis turned and leaped into the river, a look of abject terror on his face.
“What have you done now?” Laenaris grumbled as she stood up.
Two more trolls exploded from the undergrowth and fell on the poor dragonhawk. It let out a plaintive cry as the fleeing hunter scrambled up the opposite side of the riverbank and vanished into the woods. “Kraaah!” The call for help was answered with an arrow, but not from its master.
Another arrow was notched in Laenaris’ bow before the first of the three trolls had hit the ground. It sprouted out of the second barbarian’s eye as it turned to look at her – the last mistake the troll warrior would ever make. The third troll was wiser than its companions, raising a shield to block any incoming arrows as it charged. But the act took his attention off the dragonhawk, which immediately proceeded to tear out the troll’s unshielded back. The troll fell to the ground, unable to defend himself from an attack on two fronts. He twitched gruesomely in his last moments.
Laenaris carefully approached the dragonhawk, digging in her pack for some of the meat gathered earlier. The dragonhawk caught the tossed morsel in midair, wolfing down the treat. “Krrrr!” The way to this dragonhawk’s heart was through its stomach, it seemed.
“Pyros, isn’t it?” Laenaris asked as she stroked the dragonhawk’s crested spine. “It was only three trolls, why did Sadis abandon you like that?”
“Dere be da hunt-ah!” The shout came from the hill beyond. More than a dozen forest trolls appeared, each armed with crude but wicked-looking spears and swords. Had the entire village of Zeb’Watha turned out to chase Sadis away?
“Oh no,” Laenaris muttered under her breath. If she escaped this alive, by the Shadow she would kill that coward Sadis. Laenaris danced across the nearby river stones that marked the falls and took off into the trees. Trolls were like bears, ferocious and quick to anger, but if you could run fast and far enough they would give up eventually. She quickly found herself leaving the barbarians behind. They thought they’d won, judging from the victorious whoops in the distance. Completely winded, she spent a good minute just catching her breath. When she stood straight again, she found herself looking into the glowing white eyes of a certain dragonhawk.
“You followed me?” Laenaris laughed in surprise.
“Krraaah!” Pyros replied. She’d never heard of an abandoned companion bonding to another hunter. Perhaps it felt betrayed by Sadis, and swore its loyalty to the next person who had come along?
Well, this was certainly an unexpected, though by all means not unwelcome, development. What Laenaris would give to see the look on Sadis’ face when he heard the news that his abandoned pet had bonded to his rival. In any case, this little event would make its way to the ears of whatever girl toy he was playing with.
But to do all that, Laenaris would have to make her way back to Fairbreeze Village before sundown. The undead in the Dead Scar grew more adventurous in the darkness. Despite the discouraging fact that she had completely forgotten her boots back at the river, she made it back to Fairbreeze with enough time to sell the leather and buy a new pair of boots. It had been an uncommonly good day.
For the first time in a year, Laenaris did not eat dinner alone. Pyros the dragonhawk hovered beside her, eating his own meal of fish and fruit that his mistress cobbled together. Afterwards, she stood for a long time in her room, considering the hooded green cape on the hook in front of her. It was a Farstrider’s cape, given to every Farstrider recruit upon induction as a ranger.
“I’m sorry, Ranger-General, but I can’t join the Farstriders now.” Laenaris stands in front of the newly-minted Ranger-General of Silvermoon, Halduron Brightwing.
“And I am truly sorry to hear it,” the Ranger-General replies. “I know your brother was among those in Outland, it would be wrong to ask you to make any commitments now.” It wasn’t quite the reason that Laenaris was refusing to become a ranger, but would do as an excuse for now. “What will you do?” Laenaris looks at him with some surprise, why would the Ranger-General be interested in her plans?
“I don’t know,” she admits.
“You are one of the best of all our recruits, and we need as many bows as we can get.” Ranger-General Brightwing hands her a bolt of forest-green cloth. “In case you change your mind.” Laenaris just stares at the cape in her arms, and attempts to put it back. “I insist.”
The cape had hung in her room ever since, gathering dust like so much else in the house. Now, Laenaris lifted it off of its hook and carried it downstairs. It was tossed into the hearth, on top of the wood. The cape, more than anything else, represented the old Laenaris, a High Elf named Laenaris. It was an illusion of a future that would not come to pass, an illusion that brought too much pain to exist any longer. That High Elven aspiring ranger was dead, had fallen and died during the Battle of Quel’Thalas. It had no place in this Blood Elf’s future.
Laenaris did not bother to watch the fabric slowly turn to ash.
The next day, Laenaris woke feeling lighter than she had in a long time. She had finally figured out the answer to the question posed so long ago by the Ranger-General. After the daily meditation, she donned traveling mail and took the stairs with a spring in her step. Packing food in her backpack once again, she moved out the door, munching on an apple. “Come, Pyros!” she called. The dragonhawk swept out. Perhaps picking up on his mistress’s mood, he performed several loop-de-loops in the early morning air before settling back to a hover above the ground. Laenaris laughed at his antics and tossed him his own breakfast.
Laenaris was tired of living in the past. The fight for her life three years ago had changed her, irrevocably and irreversibly. She wanted revenge for what had been done to her and her people, and more than anything wanted to bring her family back together – what was left of it, at least. Who cared how far she had to travel to do it?
A few days ago, Laenaris had seen a flyer on the wanted board for adventurers willing to clean out the mana worm infestation at Sunstrider Isle. Adventurers were an alternate breed of mercenaries, really, with the difference being they didn’t fight for the highest bidder. All an adventurer wanted most in life was to seek out and destroy evil, funding his or her habit with odd jobs. If fighting the demons who destroyed her family and kingdom meant killing a few mana worms, that was a price Laenaris was willing to pay again and again.
At least, she thought as she walked along the path to Sunstrider Isle with Pyros at her side, I won’t be alone anymore.