The Fragile Line
The soggy morning air hung heavily around the walls of Warden’s Vigil, clinging to the brows of the soldiers who sat in single file along the easternmost edge of the main fortification, their eyes fixed on the now-empty gate and barren horizon. They were battered, heads in their hands, and a dark-haired priestess shuffled among the ranks, ladling cool mouthfuls of water out for whoever was willing. Another much younger initiate followed behind the priestess, a basket filled with bandages and salves clutched between her shaking hands.
Rhianon, perched on the top of the fortress’s highest wall, watched the two of them appreciatively. Water and simple salves could do little in this momentary respite from battle, but she could see tentative smiles dance across the soldiers’ faces as the two priestesses passed. Even now, as cold rain trickled down their backs and battles raged just over the horizon, the soldiers’ minds wandered back to a sun-bathed cathedral in Stormwind, or maybe some distant childhood stories of noble paladins bearing their forces to victory under the name of the Holy Light. She had heard some shaman around the Exodar bemoaning the fact that whatever authority they might gain over time, they would never mean to their people what an Anchorite or a Vindicator would mean. Rhianon was, however, perfectly happy with her status in society. She certainly didn’t want anyone making wooden toy figurines out of her, thank you very much!
A gust of wind snaked around her and she lifted her chin up, craning her head to listen to its murmuring tones. On the groaning fingers of the air, she heard the sound of stampeding hooves, clanging armor, and the sharp song of blades leaving their scabbards. An assault was imminent.
Rhianon stood up, shouting down “Incoming!” to the resting troops. Before her voice even carried down to the courtyard below, however, a single arrow hissed through the air and planted itself in the courtyard’s bare soil, barely missing the skirt of the youngest initiate. The soldiers jumped to their feet, drawing blades and bows, and the priestesses began chanting blessings of protection and strength over their comrades. Her eyes not leaving the crowd of Horde streaming over the horizon, Rhianon scrambled down the side of the fortress.
Battle for Rhianon always seemed to be conducted in slow-motion, as if she was watching herself through a clouded looking glass. She watched as earth spirits rose from the ground, wrapping their dusty arms around the oncoming Horde and slowing the advance. She felt the wind whistle around her, gathering up the fireballs and other magics that the Horde mages were throwing, and she saw the air’s misty hands grip the throats of the spell-casters, interrupting their incantations. Rivulets of water snaked through the earth, soothing and cleansing wounds.
And it was then that she saw him, as the assault itself reached its peak. A white-pelted tauren shaman stood just behind the front lines of the Horde, totems planted in the earth around him, eyes closed and lips moving. Elder Maskah. The battle came into startling relief before her. Her gaze couldn’t leave his face, even as arrows and spells whizzed past her head, and her mind, once racing, froze.
He was not on her side.
His eyes opened, dark-lined and smoldering, and she followed his gaze across the battlefield to the dark-haired human priestess. She was standing in the thick of the fighting, a protective shield glowing around her and holy magic licking up like flames from her fingertips. Rhianon had enough experience with priestesses to recognize that she was in the middle of a lengthy incantation – and she was certain the other shaman had equivalent experience. She began to turn on her hooves to spin around and divert Maskah’s attention, but before Rhianon could move, she felt stinging arms of wind rip past her. The priestess stumbled, gagging, and then fell to the ground as a shadowed rogue overtook her.
Rhianon faltered, her breath caught in her throat. The first thoughts that rushed to her mind were childish. How could he do such a thing? Maybe she was mistaken, maybe this wasn’t the kindly Elder she met in the spirit world weeks ago. Maybe he was a different shaman, one who had lost his way.
She turned back around to face Maskah, but he was now facing in the opposite direction, head bent towards the sky, arms up in preparation to call healing rains down onto his allies. Much as she would do, Rhianon realized. She protected her friends, her unlikely family, and he did the same, with the same honor and nobility. How could she begrudge him that?
A soldier collapsed on the ground next to her and Rhianon shook her head.
Elder Maskah would understand.
Rhianon ran her fingers through the air, awakening the sleeping spirits. A zephyr whistled around her and then circled outward, wrapping itself around Elder Maskah’s form, shattering his casting. The white-pelted tauren then whipped around, searching for the culprit, his brow furrowed. A flash of recognition passed over his face and he smiled, grunting out something in orcish. He raised a hand at her, as if in peace, and her heart lightened. He understands…
And then she saw his fingers moving, tracing out the symbols of a hex in the pulsating air. This time, however, Rhianon did not freeze. Unable to call back the wind spirits in time, she ran towards him and grabbed his hand just as he was finishing the casting. Their eyes locked, black to silver, and then she stepped out of her body.
The battle around them fell silent and then vanished. They were still standing in the courtyard of Warden’s Vigil, but the air was still and the sky bright, although sunless. Everything seemed to dance with light; not even the highest spires were capable of casting a shadow. Elder Maskah raised his head to the sky before looking back down at Rhianon, who was still clutching onto his thick wrist.
“What have you done?” He whispered, hoarse. “What have you done?”
“You and your allies need to leave this place,” Rhianon said, words ringing out in the silence. “We’ll give you a peaceful retreat and you may gather your wounded, but this battle is over.”
The tauren laughed. “You can’t make such decisions, Spirit-Walker. You are just one among hundreds. One among thousands. You can’t possibly be so naive as to think you can dictate a battle.” He took his hand from her grasp, expression softening. “I understand your anger. We can be friends in the spirit realms, but fate has given us other paths to walk in the mortal realm. I do not hold it against you.”
“I don’t hold it against you either.”
“But I will not let you win, girl,” Elder Maskah returned. “I hope that is clear to you.”
“I don’t intend to lose,” Rhianon said. She griped his hand again, fingers tight against his palm. “You see what I’ve done here? You see where you are? I will send each one of your allies here, if I have to. I said, leave.”
And then she released him, and Elder Maskah’s spirit faded from view.
Rhianon breathed in a sigh of relief and closed her eyes, shaking the ties of the spirit world from her body. When she reopened her eyes, she was back in the gloomy battle on Warden’s Vigil, Horde streaming through the courtyard and out through the gates. The Alliance soldiers were raising their fists in the air, thumping each other on the backs, and in the distance, she could hear the solitary cry of a battle horn. The Horde were being called back to reinforce other posts; the tide was turning.
As relief began to settle over the fortress, Rhianon walked through the courtyard, watching as any soldier capable of wrapping a bandage and pressing on a salve tended to the wounded. Her eyes were searching for a specific fallen: the dark-haired priestess whose defeat she had witnessed. Luckily, the priestess was easy to find; she was lying prostrate on the ground by the steps to the fortress, not far from where Rhianon had watched her fall. A small cluster of soldiers surrounded her, voices low and rumbling.
Rhianon sucked in a tight breath and approached. She expelled the breath when she saw that the priestess was still conscious, although spattered with blood and dirt. The shaman leaned over the shoulder of one of the soldiers, watching him wipe the grime from the woman’s wounds. The priestess shuddered at the touch, but relented, letting her comrade bandage up her wounds. She grimaced and whispered, “Ma…Marian…where…?”
The soldiers turned to each other, confused.
“I think she means her initiate,” one of them finally said. He kneeled at the priestess’s side, brushing stray hair from her face, and explained, “Marian’s fine. She’s tending to the shaman not too far from here.”
When she heard the words “shaman,” Rhianon frowned. She didn’t remember another shaman among the forces at Warden’s Vigil. Was it possible another had come to reinforce the post? She raised her head up and saw, just as the soldier had indicated, the initiate standing over another fallen, gathered soldiers obscuring the victim’s form.
“That little Draenei?” one of the soldiers standing next to Rhianon commented. “Hope she’s okay.”
Every fiber in Rhianon’s body stiffened at the soldier’s words, and her heart, if it was her heart, thundered madly. Steeling herself, she pulled herself away from the group surrounding the priestess, moving over to the initiate. There was an easy explanation, she told herself. Alliance – it was a fifty-fifty chance that the shaman would be a Draenei – and it was very possible that additional reinforcements had been called as the battle had grown more harrowed.
She was lying to herself; she knew that, but she couldn’t stop the desperate thoughts.
As Rhianon drew closer, the initiate straightened up, pushing some of the soldiers out of the way. “We need more air in here,” the young woman ordered. “Are you sure there’s no one else to assist? A paladin, perhaps?”
“Just you, milady,” one of the soldiers replied.
The initiate huffed, bending down again. “I don’t understand,” she muttered to herself. “I’ve never seen anything like this. No physical injury…Are you sure there’s no paladin among you? Or another priest?”
As the initiate blustered, several soldiers stepped away and Rhianon could finally see the body they were crowded around. Silver hair, dark skin, delicately curled horns, neatly polished hooves…
She dropped to the ground, shaking. Where had she gone wrong? She pushed through the crowd, not that it mattered since she wasn’t more than a gust of air to them anyway, and threw herself over her body. Perhaps if she held onto herself tight enough, or closed her eyes long enough…
I knew it was a delicate balance.
I never thought I would fall.
She began to cry, but that seemed silly since she wasn’t sure she even had tears. And that thought just made her cry even harder. What was she supposed to do now? Just fade away? What about…well…her life?
“I am having trouble believing you being priestess!” A familiar, if not acerbic, voice broke through the initiate’s mutterings, but Rhianon ignored it, wrapping herself in her own sufferings. The voice added in heavily accented Common, “Go be helping someone else. Maybe you being useful that way, no?”
“You. Stopping this crying, no? Is for little children, not grown woman.”
The last snap, Rhianon realized, was directed at her, and she looked up, surprised at how relieved she felt to see Matron Anatevka fuming over her. The Draenei priestess shook her head and sighed, continuing on in Draenic, “This is a bit of a mess you’ve gotten yourself into, but nothing that can’t be righted in good time. Not that this moronic girl here would know how, though. Pity her superior got her behind handed to her.”
“You can see me?” Rhianon murmured, head back and gazing up at Anatevka. “But aren’t I a ghost or something?”
“That’s ridiculous. You’re not dead, are you? Just out of place.” The older Draenei brushed off a space of ground next to Rhianon’s body and then knelt down, resting her hand on the fallen shaman’s forehead. “In any case,” she explained to Rhianon’s spirit, “you’re more like one of those shadows you glimpse out of the corner of your eye right now. There and yet not there. Now, close your eyes. This will just take a moment.”
Rhianon complied and the last thing she remembered was the darkness behind her eyes, the soft Draenic whispers of the Matron, and a rich warmth rushing over her.
Rhianon awoke to a tray clattering and some light cussing in Draenic. She blinked open her eyes, scanning the room around her. She recognized it as the same spare room that Matron Anatevka had used for conducting the physical exam, barren save for a rickety end table, a worn tapestry on the wall, and of course, the lumpy bed in which she found herself.
Anatevka was hovering over the table, organizing a tea tray and muttering over a fallen mug. “I guess I’ll have to go pour you another cup of tea. Do you mind slightly soggy biscuits?” Rhianon was always struck at how Anatevka could carry on a conversation with someone with even raising her head to acknowledge them. She guessed it was something that came with age, something which the priestess possessed in great quantities.
“I’m not really hungry,” Rhianon said, the words stumbling from her lips.
That response made Anatevka turn her head and look at Rhianon full on. “You aren’t going soft on me, are you? What happened out there wasn’t good, but it will happen when you’re dancing around with such dangerous things. A fragile line, you know, will break one time or another. Maybe another couple times.” She placed a biscuit on a plate and handed it to Rhianon. “Eat this.”
Rhianon took the offered plate, picking at the overly moist biscuit. “I guess…I guess it was lucky that you were there.”
Anatevka snorted. “You’re wondering how I appeared, aren’t you? Just out of thin air?” She gestured to a stack of paperwork on the table next to the messy tray. “I had to finish up that ridiculous examination paperwork for young Henii. You forgot to write down your birthdate on the form. Or your age. Finally tracked you down, and what do I find? Something ELSE to add to my report! Oh, yes, I’m sure Henii will love this. I’m going to complete everything for this evening. I’m not going to suggest anything specific for you, but I’m making a recommendation that you be under a bit closer supervision. Of course, that’s at the leadership’s discretion.”
The Matron then laughed. “Although, based on some of the other incidents in your file, I’m surprised you aren’t already under constant watch. Now, I’m going to get some tea. Try to rest a bit.”
As Anatevka shuffled from the room, the sound of the Matron’s rustling skirts echoing off the cool plaster walls, Rhianon nodded and leaned back in the bed, letting the plate and biscuit fall to her side. She closed her eyes and a cool gust of air from the window washed over her. On the breeze, she could hear the distant singing of the bog lords and rippling waters of Serpent Lake – and then she was asleep.