Title: The Big Sky :: Loch Modan
Character/Pairing: Just the Hunter and the Rogue again. Takes place in the months leading up to the Cataclysm expansion.
Rating: Pretty much good for everybody, this one.
Summary: Patch 4.0.1 is imminent, but several months previously...
A chance to heal, and an opportunity to reflect on what has gone before, or what might yet be...
Disclaimer: All these people live in a computer game owned by Activision and Blizzard. NPC names are specific to the Wrath expansion. The one I play is mine in my mind only.
Again, thanks in droves to everyone who has encouraged me to get this far without collapsing in a spent emotional heap. A hat tip to M, whose fingerprints are all over this, and for that I will continue never to be quite grateful enough.
The Big Sky.
For a long time, everything is white.
Definition forms, familiarity recognised: hazy blue sky, loch green, the sound of gentle waves, lapping against the jetty, water against wood. Toes dip, feet immersed: sharp cold against warm skin, the swish of a line as it flies back and then forward, the plop as the lure impacts and the hook sinks. His voice: constant care and patience, love and reassurance.
Patience, lassie. The fish will come. Give them time.
Music drifts, across the Valley, pipe and accordion intertwined: the song of the season, practice for the Festival. Grilling meat, chopping wood, playing children; the flap of the banners unfurled across the Stoutlager Inn. Summer breeze and green trees, pinecones and the smell of Swifthistle. Peacebloom seeds drifting lazily on air currents, fuzzy annoyances catching in her hair. Unbraided coarseness, unconstrained limbs, the sun on her face and the promise of grilled Frenzy with the Beer Basted Boar Ribs.
His voice is concerned, suddenly distant.
Can you hear me?
A darkness is spreading across the lake, insidious anger radiating from a single point, rapidly and inescapably consuming. The water turns cold, freezing without warning, and she can't move, the scream in her mouth swallowed by overwhelming feeling, life draining away through the soles of her feet --
'Aye, Defile's really nasty -- but you see, she's fine now.'
P's eyes flutter open. She's not at home, but in the Citadel. Icecrown. The final push. It takes too long to grasp she's horizontal, that this time she didn't walk away. The Dwarven Priest standing over her smiles, removing the special elemental wraps from her feet, though there's still no feeling beneath her knees. Events shift, the chronology in her head confused. The platform had fallen away, before the Valk'yr came. She'd panicked and not moved fast enough when the Lich King cast his magic, despite the shouted warning. They'd faced him with Fordring, and he'd pushed them all to the limit...
'Don't you worry about him. You get some rest, you deserve it.'
The past finally settles back into place. Terenas Menethil had resurrected her. Bolvar was still alive, after a fashion. There are tears, relief this time as a hand slips silently over hers, familiar feeling to help her relax, breathe easily. Randall sits on the edge of the camp-bed, face covered in blood she knows isn't his own, and she doesn't want to ask. She is too tired, too cold, and yearns for the warmth of the Loch's shore to lose herself, warm grass to surround her.
All that's missing is the memory of a kill: her body had failed before their enemy had fallen.
Randall smiles: there is no satisfaction in his response.
'We're done here.'
This is her home. There was nowhere else she loved as much.
Three months have passed in bliss: nothing seemed painful in the comfort of the midsummer sun. She lies in the grass staring at clouds, working out what they best represented. That cloud looks like Kalimdor. This one is a Crag Boar. The largest was a Crocolisk but quick, it's changing to a Threshadon. Blues shift and deepen as afternoon stretches, purples and reds in late evening, moon-touched black at midnight to white brilliance at sunrise, the day begun anew. The undying constants of life, rising and falling, the backdrop of her existence.
Her nightmares are never remembered, fleeting phantoms of the depravity she has left behind, the past she cannot change. The sky is her constant, a way to lose time and cohesion, becoming a part again with the ground. Fingers dig into the soil, mud under nails, skin and dirt once indivisible and now separate. She works at the Inn and sleeps with the Loch under beguiling skies, and slowly the world heals her torment, makes everything solid and safe again.
The change in warmth wakes her, as the sun finally dips behind the trees. She'd abandoned the rod and line hours ago, the Frenzy refusing to bite, and instead had just laid down where she'd stopped. The earth is lush in summer, a world away from the permanent cold: just returned and not enough done, the Dwarf wonders why she would ever choose to leave. Last time, her best friend had enticed her away with promises of glory, and she had been right. They had won again, but at the most terrible of costs.
It would take something pretty spectacular to even tempt her from home this time around.
There is the familiar swish, then plop, followed shortly afterwards by what she knows is the reeling in of a successful catch, squirming fish in shallow water. Someone else was by the shore. She opens one eye, squinting through the sunlight as she tries to make out the average-heighted shape down by the fringe of the Loch. It appears to be having trouble removing the hook from the wriggling Frenzy's mouth.
For a rogue, his grasp of manual dexterity was sometimes suboptimal.
Crais is still struggling when she reaches him, forcing her to come and take the fish out of by now slimy hands. He never had such difficulty in battle, why should these situations be any different? The Frenzy is a good size, but not enough for an Inn full of hungry patrons. She stares at her friend out of uniform, impeccably attired for a fishing trip, and fails to suppress a smile. He'd look good in a formal Dangui, without effort. Some people were just born lucky.
'We'll need as many as we can catch. Your father told me you had no patience.'
It is, it appears, past the stage where they formally greet each other. Only Randall and she are closer, a realisation that amazes her. When exactly did this happen?
'My Pa is right. I'd rather do nothing. The fish surface late afternoon, I just chose not to exploit that advantage.'
The Dwarf registers he is staring at her and it takes a second to grasp why: he's never seen her in a dress before. It's not a particularly flattering smock, if truth be told, but looking good for anyone was not on her list of priorities when she woke up that day. She is dirty and unkempt and happier than she's been for months, so he will simply have to cope, which he appears to be doing with increasing confidence. As she places the now dead fish in the catch basket, Crais bends to wash his hands, turning to her as he does.
'You were right, this place is stunning. Far better views than Elwynn.'
'I assume you weren't simply passing and decided to drop in?'
'I've never been here. It seemed like a good idea to visit.'
Crais rebaits and casts out into the now teeming water in front of them. He doesn't talk, or even try to engage her further, and the Dwarf wonders at the motivation. This isn't just sudden, it is unexpected.
If the Frenzy kept biting there would be plenty of fish not only tonight, but tomorrow as well. Maybe they should plan ahead and exploit the advantage, as a team.
She picks up her own rod and loads the hook with Nightcrawlers.
The Inn is busy for a Tuesday, patrons spilling out onto the road outside, talk oddly downbeat for the time of year. All eyes have turned north, to the Highlands, where reports of cult activity have increased significantly in recent weeks. A gryphon was shot down the previous day and there are rumours of an impenetrable barrier that has sprung up north of the Ogre Mound. Business, as a result is, up: the Dwarves need to plan and that inevitably is fixed over food and ale. P has been serving all day, clearing tables and preparing meals, and knows she'll have little time for a break as the evening wears on.
Seizing the moment, she takes a bottle of Moonberry Juice from behind the bar and climbs up to the roof of the Inn to watch the sunset: the best view across any zone in three continents. She sits, and for the first time since Shadowmoon grasps that there is something inside that has yet to heal.
'He told me you'd be here.'
Crais appears almost on cue, all in black, the outfit doing everything to flatter but little to deceive, choosing to sit opposite on a stone promontory. He's been strictly business today, deep in conversation with the village elders for several hours. His official motivation, on SI:7's behalf, isn't unexpected. Stormwind too has a Cultist problem, the same group moving in the north, and there's a desire to gather intelligence. His easy charm has worked magic on everyone in Thelsamar, including her father. You son of a trogg, Pa, I know you sent him up here.
'Have you got what you came for?'
'I have enough to be concerned. The Highlands may be the least of my problems.'
His actions are anything but selfish: she knows once you join SI:7 you never leave. He may choose to fight in a five but his loyalty remains united to the Crown, the Alliance cause. He will have been sent here for a reason, but...
'Is that really why you're here?'
Something softens as his façade falters, a point subtly redirected.
'I made a promise to Mirrie.'
The blood is rushing in her ears: she's back in the snow, feet frozen and heart incapable. They are in Icecrown, that night at the Argent Tournament, the day before Arthas died. Moments of their lives combined, when grief became anger and finally acceptance. Separate existence drawn together through laughter, shared strength, remembrance of quests past.
Crais doesn't smile very often, but when he does she finds herself strangely willing, captured. Not a Dwarf's gruff honesty, or a Gnome's infectious enthusiasm... but quiet satisfaction. He stares into her, and she understands: while the earth may heal her soul, her heart is a different quantity. Two things joined, yet separate, both tied together with an unbreakable thread. Mirrie has bound them in life and death, perhaps tighter than she ever anticipated.
As the sun goes down, his eyes are the blue sky of a new day: a possibility of promise, the battle not yet fought.
This debt was not yet paid.
'The cultist activity in Stormwind is of genuine interest?'
'It's a front, a massive deception. There are a lot of very nervous people.'
The desire rises without prompting, the need to help, to offer her services. She knows instinctively he won't ask her, but rather wait for her to arrive at the inevitable. His remarkable ability isn't to push, it is to pull: to generate understanding, comprehension and finally truth. One's own conscience is the guide and compass: the decision is theirs.
'I'll need to wait 'til Pa can hire some extra help.'
'He has two women coming from Coldridge tomorrow.'
She wants to object, accuse him of manipulation, but there's no point. He's anticipated her as he did every time she laid a trap for him to pull an enemy into. Her father knows her better than she does and so, it appears, does Crais. Her smile is enough to move him to standing, to offer his hand. As he helps her up Northrend moves from present to past, as it was with Outland and Kalimdor. This is a new chapter, a fresh beginning.
'You would have let me stay here?'
'Would you have let yourself remain?'
Time has played tricks with her for too long, present and past carelessly overlapping. Perhaps the reasons need not be cataclysmic, the enemy seemingly unbeatable, for her involvement to be justified. Maybe all she desired was a friend to ask her for help to protect the earth and sky, the simplest of gestures meaning more than rewards and glory.
The embrace is a surprise, deliberate pull towards him she won't resist, because she's not afraid of him any more. As she stands, wrapped in his warmth, everything is back in place, leaving simply possibility in its wake.
Looking upwards to the heavens as the stars emerge, she wonders how just how easy it might be to join a cult.