The Space Between
The sun glared down through the forest canopy that afternoon in the Grizzly Hills, basking everything below in a fuzzy halo of heat. Most – adventurer and animal alike – took it upon themselves to find shade in a lodge or cave, whiling away the afternoon with a nap or a cool drink. Two travelers, however, were not so lucky, and the sun quickly located the pair, a draenei dragging an elekk behind her, heading northeast on a dusty path through the forest.
“Quincy, come on!” Rhianon protested, tugging at the lead of her purple-skinned elekk. The beast, laboring under a heavy layer of armor and a load of belongings, grunted and pulled back on the lead, as if to say, ‘No!.’ Not about to be bested by a stubborn elekk, Rhianon glared at Quincy. “Fine. You don’t want to move; you don’t have to. I’ll leave you here.” The elekk raised his head, confused, and the draenei continued, “I imagine you’ll have some difficulty finding someone to toast your back-warmer over the stove the way you like, and maybe you’ll even have trouble finding something good to eat. Not too many sugar-frosted nut vendors out here.” She shrugged and dropped the lead. “Have it your way.”
Rhianon turned and began walking away, listening carefully for Quincy’s response. As she had predicted, the elekk let out a blusterous trumpet and then stumbled after Rhianon, nuzzling his trunk into her back. ‘I’m sorry..’ The draenei laughed, turning around to pat Quincy’s neck. She then took up the lead again and motioned to a break in the tree-line ahead of them. “I’m pretty sure the Westfall Brigade camp isn’t very far ahead. You’ll be able to take a break once we get there.”
The pair began moving on slowly, both draenei and elekk tired from their day-long trek through the Grizzly Hills, until Rhianon paused in her tracks. She raised her head, eyes scanning the forest around them. “Do you hear that, Quincy?” The elekk grumbled and pushed his trunk into Rhianon’s back, attempting to shove her forward. Rhianon shook her head. The air around her seemed to only carry the sounds of birds and the creaking of the trees. “Maybe it was just the wind – but I thought I heard something a second ago.” She shrugged and pulled on Quincy’s lead. “It’s been a long day. I’m probably just hearing things.”
A breath of wind rushed passed her ear. Listen better, my student.
A little jolted now, the shaman stopped again, and perked her ears to listen once again to the sounds of the forest. This time, however, rather than simply waiting for the wind to carry the sounds to her, she closed her eyes and whispered a simple plea to the spirits of the air. “Let me hear what it is you want me to hear; close out everything else to me.” The forest around Rhianon fell silent and for a brief moment, it felt as if all of the world had stopped still. Yet, amidst the quiet, Rhianon felt a single zephyr wrapping itself around her body, carrying a message to her. The sound echoed painfully in her ears now, much louder now than when she had first heard it – a child crying. The zephyr tugged at her, pushing in her the direction of the noise. She quickly thanked the spirits who had aided her, picked up Quincy’s lead, and headed towards the child’s cries.
Rhianon traced the cries back to an abandoned trapper outpost nestled in a small grove of pines. In the main building, after carefully making her way up the rickety steps (Quincy decided to wait outside and snack on a small tree), she found a human girl-child sprawled cross-legged on the floor, a rabbit curled up against her leg. The girl had been crying for some time – evidenced by the tracks of dirty tears crossing both her cheeks – and seemed almost startled when Rhianon stepped through the doorway, her hands quickly moving to shield the fluffy rabbit. The girl then looked up at Rhianon, her eyes shining with tears.
The draenei gulped. She was uncertain as to how to handle this situation; she had few dealings with human children and younglings were rare around the Exodar. Hesistantly, Rhianon asked the simplest question she could imagine. “Who are you?”
“My name is Emily,” the girl explained, choking back a sob. She then gestured to the rabbit. “And this is Mr. Floppy.”
“Hello, Emily – and Mr. Floppy,” Rhianon said slowly, planting a huge smile across her face. “Now, where is your mother or father?”
Emily wiped her eyes. “My brother was going to take Mr. Floppy and me out to play. But he got busy and so we went by ourselves. But there were mean wolves and they chased Mr. Floppy. We’ve been hiding in here.” She picked up Mr. Floppy, holding him against her chest. “But we want to go home!”
“Where is home?”
“The Westfall Camp.”
Rhianon breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s exactly where we are headed! You and Mr. Floppy can come with me and Quincy and we’ll make sure those mean wolves don’t bother you. Come on, now.” The draenei offered her hand to the girl – and was surprised when Emily jumped to grab it, the little girl’s sweaty palm hot against Rhianon’s smokey-blue skin. Emily then looked up at Rhianon, asking, “Who is Quincy?”
“Oh, he’s my friend – just like your Mr. Floppy!” Rhianon then cocked her head and frowned, mentally comparing the white furred Mr. Floppy with her Quincy. “Well, not so small and fluffy. He’s an elekk.”
Rhianon didn’t reply; she simply led the girl outside and gestured to Quincy who was face-first in a bunch of shrubs. The girl squealed, dumping Mr. Floppy into the shaman’s hands. She rushed over to Quincy and threw her arms around his flank. “He’s so big! And his skin is so funny and tough!”
Quincy, startled by the sudden attention from the small creature, craned his head around, his eyes frantic. Rhianon rushed over to the elekk’s side, removing Emily forcibly from Quincy’s flank and thrusting Mr. Floppy back into her arms. “There you go; there’s your Mr. Floppy!”
Emily, a little perplexed, hugged Mr. Floppy to her chest and asked. “Can Mr. Floppy and me ride Mister Quincy?”
Quincy bellowed out a solid ‘NO!’ and Rhianon sighed, shaking her head. “Not today. He’s really tired. We’ll just walk. The camp is just beyond the trees over there anyway.”
The girl nodded and placed Mr. Floppy on the ground. “Mr Floppy will walk with us!”
Rhianon raised an eyebrow, almost wanting to ask if a rabbit would be able to keep up with them (and partially worried that Quincy would ‘accidently’ step on the little fur-ball), but said nothing. Emily grabbed Rhianon’s hand and announced, “Let’s go home!”
The four of them made an odd sight as they walked through the forest; Emily, at the front of the group, skipping and singing boisterously about peas and princes; Mr. Floppy, bouncing in Emily’s tracks, and Rhianon and Quincy, draenei and elekk, bringing up the rear.
“Um, Emily?” Rhianon called out, trying to make herself heard over the girl’s sing-song voice. “If there are wolves about, don’t you think we should be well…a bit quieter?”
“I’m scaring them away from Mr. Floppy!”
Rhianon sighed and bowed her head, muttering, “I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”
Quincy, who was lumbering just alongside the young shaman, looked up at her and made a grunting noise that sounded something akin to a chuckle. ‘This was your idea! We could have just left her there!’ the elekk seemed to say.
Rhianon glared at him. “That would have been cruel.” She sighed again and raised her head up, watching the girl and rabbit carefully. Emily, now tired of skipping and singing, had picked a twig up from the ground and was running it along the trunks of trees as she passed them. “How did Father get me to behave when I was little?” She vaguely remembered her father, ever serious, scolding her for various little wrongs – eating sweets before dinner, laughing at the Anchorites praying, or not obeying her mother. ‘Oh, Rhianon,’ he would say calmly, shaking his head, ‘why are you being a bad child today?’ There was something to his tone and the sad look on his face, that made it easy to accept his scolding and then obey him. ‘My little Rhianon,’ Rhellus would say, ‘next time, you will not do that! And then we will be very happy, your mother and I.’
The sharp crack of a branch and a girl’s squeal tore Rhianon out of her daydream. She lifted her gaze up and saw Emily, her face white in panic, tumbled back on the ground, a large wolf hovering over her. The wolf’s jaws dripped with saliva, a low growl rumbling deep inside the beast’s furry chest.
“Get away!” Rhianon shouted. She thrust her hand forward, pushing currents of air towards the wolf. The shock slammed into the wolf’s side and he stumbled backwards. Startled, but seemingly undeterred, the wolf picked himself up again and craned his head towards the whimpering girl. Before Rhianon had time to react, the wolf launched himself towards Emily – and found himself face-first into the leathery leg of a giant elekk. Quincy looked down at the wolf, his tusks bare, and trumpeted. ‘Get away from here!’ he warned the animal. ‘Or else I will stomp you!’
The wolf inched backwards, disappointed, but not willing to test his mettle against the much larger Quincy. As he moved away, the beast’s gaze fell onto the furry Mr. Floppy who was curled into a ball in the middle of the path, frozen in terror. The wolf jerked his head up towards Quincy as if to say, ‘Watch this!’ and then sprang forward to bury his teeth deep into Mr.Floppy’s flesh.
The wolf, however, didn’t get long to snack on his rabbit treat. Quincy’s trunk wrapped around the wolf’s skinny middle and lifted him off the ground. The wolf squirmed, dropping Mr. Floppy – and then Quincy, stamping his hooves into the ground in anger, tossed the wolf deep into the forest surrounding them. Rhianon heard the wolf let out a plainative cry as he flew through the air – and then heard the rustle and crack of branches, followed by a decidedly satisfactory THUMP, as the wolf landed somewhere in the forest.
For a moment, the group was silent – and then Rhianon burst into laughter. “I had no idea you could move that quickly, Mister Q!” Quincy bellowed at her in protest and Rhianon just chortled, shaking her head.
The happy outburst, however, was quickly countered with Emily’s racking sobs. Rhianon bit her lip, watching the litle girl kneel at Mr. Floppy’s prone body. Emily, tears streaming afresh down her cheeks, patted the rabbit, saying, “Come on, Mr. Floppy. Get up! It’s not naptime yet!”
The shaman walked up to Emily and knelt down beside her. She rested a hand over Emily’s and when she spoke, her voice was soft. “I don’t think he’s sleeping, Emily.”
“But he was my sister’s!” Emily wailed, burying her face in the rabbit’s side. “She went to fight with the Crusade. I was supposed to watch him and play with him until she got back; that’s what she said! So he wouldn’t be lonely!” The girl lifted her head and looked up at Rhianon. “Can’t you make him wake up? Please?”
Rhianon frowned. It wasn’t unusual for her to call a living spirit back to a body – but she suspected that rabbits were quite different than her usual patients. Hunter’s companions, at least, were accustomed to heading the calls of their master and most were of enough intelligence to understand the concept of returning to their body. Mr. Floppy, at least to her understanding, did not meet either of those criteria. She glanced down at Emily, saw the girl’s pleading eyes searching her face for some sign of hope, and sighed. “I can try.”
Rhianon lifted Mr. Floppy up into her arms, cradling the cold body against her chest. She closed her eyes and swallowed…
Rhianon found herself standing in the middle of a brightly-lit forest. It looked exactly like the spot of the Grizzly Hills they had been traveling through – but every color, every branch, every crumb of dirt seemed brighter, clearer, and more real. Bird songs echoed through the trees and in the distance, Rhianon could hear the rush of a great river.
“Mr. Floppy!” she cried out, cupping her hands to her face. “Mr. Floppy, Emily wants you to come home!” There was no movement in the shrubbery around her. Rhianon sighed. If she was a rabbit, she certainly wouldn’t want to leave this place, particularly not for a little girl who probably pulled at your fur all the time. “Mr. Floppy!!”
“He was just eating a bit of wild green over here,” a familiar voice said. “I’ve got him now.”
Rhianon blinked, her breath catching in her throat. On the path before her, the figure of a Broken appeared, carrying a rabbit gingerly in his arms. He stroked Mr. Floppy’s fur. “You’ve got a good friend at home who misses you, little one,” he whispered to the creature. “You’ll come back here soon enough; it’s not going anywhere.”
“Sage Nastah!” Rhianon finally let out, her voice cracking.
The Broken raised his head up and smiled at her. “You act surprised to see me.”
“Well, yes!” Rhianon said dumbly. “I’ve called plenty of spirits back and I’ve never seen you before.” She looked around. “Well, actually, I’ve never been here before either.”
“That’s because you never had to enter this realm to call back a spirit. The ones you are used to calling back are all ready and eager to return; they simply wait for your command.” Sage Nastah placed Mr. Floppy back into Rhianon’s arms. “A creature like this is different. But you knew that already.”
“So…is this the Beyond?”
Sage Nastah laughed and his eyes sparkled. “What do you think?”
Rhianon pursed her lips, hugging Mr Floppy to her chest. “Well, if it is, it’s rather disappointing. It looks like Azeroth! Except that everything looks alot sharper and brighter.”
Sage Nastah glanced around. “This place is what I like to call ‘the Space Between’. It’s the realm between this world and what’s beyond. Maybe it looks like Azeroth because that’s easier.”
“Oh.” Rhianon eyed Nastah. “I thought you were well…in the Beyond – by now, at least. With your ancestors. Like you said in your letter.”
The older shaman chuckled. “There’s time enough for that. Someone needs to keep an eye on you though, make sure my teaching is sinking in.” He bowed his head, falling silent. “The truth of the matter is,” Nastah said finally, “that I never realized how hard it would be to leave. I’m not ready yet to move to the Beyond. There is so much holding me back.”
Rhianon nodded, hot tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. “Maybe I can call your spirit back to Azeroth – ”
Nastah shook his head. “You don’t have that type of power. No mortal creature does. When your time among the living is finished, it is finished.” He smiled at her, and reached out, wiping the tears from his student’s eyes. “Now, I told you – no tears for me!” Nastah then patted Mr. Floppy. “You can’t linger here long. Return to your world.”
“Not yet – I still want to ask — ”
She was back, sitting on the dusty earth, Mr. Floppy squirming in her arms. Emily, chortling with happiness now, took Mr. Floppy from her and hugged him tightly. “Mr. Floppy! You woke up!” she said, laughing. “What a silly rabbit!”
Rhianon watched, her eyes unfocused, as Emily stood up and danced further down the path. The shaman didn’t have the energy to call out to her and remind her to stay close; she simply sat there, legs crossed beneath her. Quincy leaned down, nudging Rhianon with his trunk. She nodded and patted the trunk. “Just give me a second, Quincy. I’m not ready – just yet.”
The elekk seemed to understand and grunted, giving Rhianon another nudge before going to follow Emily down the path. After a moment, Rhianon stood up, her legs uneasy beneath her. She raised her head to the sky, letting the once offensive sun warm her face. A lazy afternoon breeze twisted around her and the shaman smiled to herself.
“Thank you,” she said to no one in particular. “Thank you.”