Mariette's eyes snapped open. She was already sitting up.
"You're safe," a voice whispered to her. As she became aware of her surroundings, she remembered she was in the Abbey. Brother Neal was at her side, his hand lightly on her shoulder. She was cold, wet. Wet? Sweat, she had been sweating. "It was just a dream, you're safe here." The monk continued his soft murmured whispers, as one would to soothe a frightened child.
"What was I...?" Strands of hair clung to her damp forehead and she reached up to wipe them clear of her eyes. She accomplished half her intent. She plucked at her clinging sleeping gown.
"The Exarch." The monks of the Abbey had become accustomed to Mariette's night terrors, on the nights when she did sleep. Otherwise, she paced the halls, or sat in the library until the sun rose. She had been searching for the Exarch Ma'algos nonstop since he had not returned from a mission in Outland. Nonstop, that is, until the King returned and there was a dire need for Stormwind's soldiers to defend their homes from a new Plague. Arthas the Traitor had sent the Scourge's Necropoli to hover over the cities, plagued shipments made their way into supply chains and people began falling ill. Some rose as the Scourge, attacking former friends and family. Mariette had been amongst those recalled from fighting the Legion. She had not slept more than a few hours each day since her return to the Abbey, and the monks were worried.
Not even the priests from the Cathedral could ease away the girl's nightmares. Nonetheless, she remained hopeful, vigilant, and focused on her duties. It was only a matter of time before her will could no longer support her, and her body would give out. Brother Neal prayed it would not happen on the field of battle.
"He's still alive." Her words had become a litany. After every dream, after every question, all she would say was 'he's still alive'. No one believed it but her. Not the Brothers in the Abbey, not her current commanders. Still, none could question her devotion to her former commander, nor her growing competence in battling the forces of the Legion, and now the Scourge. She was a capable and strong force for the Light, and if believing the ancient Draenei still lived kept her hopeful and bright, none of them would press the issue. They had lost too many to despair and the darker emotions that came with these trying times.
Brother Neal lingered a moment, patted Mariette's shoulder, and turned to leave her room. Mariette sat on her cot, holding her breath until her heartbeat slowed. It had been the same nightmare for months upon months now. Ma'algos in chains, beaten, broken, possibly dead, being dragged along a road in a forest, and then into a forsaken terrain by cackling demons and their Sin'dorei allies. The setting was different in the dreams. For a time, it was Hellfire and its blood colored dust and dirt. She had scoured the entire peninsula searching for evidence of the truth of her dreams. Two months passed and she was forced to admit that it wasn't foresight, it was just a dream. Still, it haunted her.
The Argent Dawn, and their allies, had finally found a way to protect against the Scourge's plague, so the city was not overrun with fallen citizens turned Scourge. Her duties had diminished, but her commanders were not willing to allow her to "yet" return to Outland and her search. She realized they were giving her a lot of leeway in her behavior, and for that she was grateful. In return, she gave the Alliance Command as much intelligence as she possibly could on the locations she infiltrated, observed, or outright attacked. So far, she had provided them with enough useful information that they allowed her to continue more or less as she desired.
Mariette slid off her cot to rest on her knees beside it. She bowed her head, and held her father's pendant, a sigil of the Silver Hand, between her hands and prayed. She was going to Shadowmoon Valley, the place she recognized from this dream, with or without her current commander's blessing. Ma'algos could be upset with her later, for disobeying orders from a higher ranking officer. That would be fine, she reasoned, because that would mean he was alive and well.
* * *
Mariette found their encampment a day's ride beyond the Valley's border with the Forest. The elves were asleep, but their felhounds patrolled the camp, circling the massive Draenei captive chained to the stone earth in the middle of their masters' tents. The chains, held into the ground by fel iron stakes, draped across his shoulders and back. They had him tied down like a rabid clefthoof. She could see the steady rise and fall of his shoulders beneath the chains; he was alive, breathing, but barely. The leather padding of her gloves creaked in protest as she gripped her sword more tightly. She knew she should plan this, perhaps even ride back to Allerian Stronghold for help. She knew it, but she couldn't look away. The proud Draenei was chained down like a mad beast. He was bleeding, he looked broken. Everything about the scene before her was a mockery of the Draenei she knew, a twisted parody of the man the last time she'd seen him.
If she rode back to the Stronghold, she knew there would be all manner of delays. By the time she returned with reinforcements, the elves would have moved on. If they were taking him to the Black Temple, she had to stop them before they reached their destination. Once he was taken beyond the gates to that place, there would be nothing she could do. No, there was no time to get help. She could do this, she had faith. Returning her sword to the harness across her back, she gripped her pendant in both hands, lifted it to her lips and then to her forehead. "Light protect me, Father watch over me," she whispered.
Before she could hesitate or second guess her plan, Mariette rose and strode purposefully into the middle of the camp. She had long ago reinforced the straps of her armor to minimize the noise she would make as she moved; because of this, she made it within a few feet of the fallen Draenei before the first of the felhounds heard her. The hounds all turned on her, but kept their distance. Fel energy emenated from them and she could feel their pull, draining her energy from her. She dropped to one knee, bringing her fist down to slam against the earth. Holy Light welled up from the ground as though her hand were a hammer and had struck a secret well. The light spilled across the ground like water, tendrils of it reaching up, wrapping around the felhounds. They stumbled in confusion, some pawing at their muzzles, others wandering in a small circle as if unaware of their surroundings.
She knew she had precious little time. Mariette fell forward in a lunge on her knees, reaching for the first fel iron spike. She took hold of it with both hands and yanked as hard as she could. The stake pulled free from the ground. If Ma'algos were at his full strength, this would not have been able to hold him down. His current weakness, as well as the arrangement of chains, would keep him from pulling any of the stakes free. The first of the felhounds was shaking off the dying tendrils of Light. Mariette grabbed a second, and then a third stake, jerking them free and throwing the chains off of Ma'algos.
"Light cleanse this ground!" A nova erupted from the paladin, the Light seeming to burst forth from her very skin. Cracks snaked across the ground, glowing like embers and burning paws of the felhounds. Her shout and the yelping of the felhounds woke their masters. Startled calls came from within still-closed tent flaps. Time was running out. The Sin'dorei were certain to have at least one Magister in their group, if not more, and more than one warlock to control the felhounds. She knew she could not stand against those odds.
"Azamet!" she called for her elekk, which she'd left a hundred yards down the roadway, around a bend so as to remain unseen. She heard the beast trumpet in return. As the first Magister flung back the flap of his tent, she could feel the rumble of her steed's approach in the earth beneath her feet. It would be close. Other elves appeared from their tents, still disoriented and shaking off the haze of their disrupted sleep. Azamet, the armored elekk, charged into the camp. Half the elves panicked, running back into their tents, or into the craggy surroundings for cover. As the elekk passed through the encampment, toward its mistress, it swung its trunk to and fro, collapsing tents. Some with, some without, Sin'dorei still inside.
Mariette pulled her sword free, bringing it to bear on the felhounds as the Light's power dimmed beneath her feet. She held one hand out toward the nearest felhound, palm open. "Light command you, begone demon!" She closed her hand into a fist and it began to glow. Light flowed from the center of her body out and around her fist in a small nebula before shooting toward the felhound. The felhound turned and fled - either by influence of the Light, or to escape it. Without waiting to see if the felhound would go far, she gripped her sword in both hands, swinging around just in time to catch another hound as it lept for her. The paladin and the demon dog tumbled to the ground together. Her sword cleaved halfway through its body, but its momentum and size bore the girl to the ground. She pushed it away and tried to tumble through the fall. The dead hound came free of her sword, but she fumbled in her attempt to regain her footing.
Azamet trumpted once more as he came to a stop next to the still form of Ma'algos. Mariette rolled and pushes herself to her feet. An arrow sped past her cheek, just missing her. Two Farstriders stood behind Azamet, notching more arrows. "Azamet, down!" Mariette ran the three strides to Ma'algos, jerking free two more stakes, and giving her elekk the sign command for lift. The elekk knelt, its trunk easing around the Draenei's bulk. Mariette jerked another chain free, barely ducking an arrow that flew just over her head.
Mariette looked toward the archers, and drew her empty hand back, uttering a wordless scream. A glow began to swirl around her form, turning into a near-vortex as it traveled up her cocked arm. A large hammer of light formed in her hand just as she flung it at the elf on the left. The Light slammed into the Sin'dorei's chest like a real hammer, knocking him backward and to the ground. His companion faltered for only a moment before reaching to his quiver for another arrow.
Azamet had Ma'algos in the air, stomping the ground impatiently. He was trained for war, but the Draenei's bulk was an effort for even the giant beast to support in this way. "Back!" Mariette made a gesture to command the elekk to put its load onto its back. The elekk lifted the Exarch over its head, lowering the limp form to drape across the broad saddle on its back. "Go!" Mariette screamed at the elekk, her hand moving in the last command she had take the time to teach the elekk. If the training had been successful, the elekk would return to Shattrath City with its burden. She made the gesture twice, when the elekk hesitated. It made to kneel, for her to mount, but she pushed on it. "No. Go!"
An arrow slammed into her left shoulder. Mariette was spun around and landed on her back on the ground. Her sword fell free, skittering few feet away. As she pushed herself to sit up, she saw Azamet trampling the two Farstriders, and a struggling form inside a fallen tent as he went. The elekk was on its way, with Ma'algos on its back.
* * *
The world was a haze, but Ma'algos felt the familiar glow of the Light beneath him. He tried to turn his head, expecting the resistance of the chains, but found none. Near to him was a figure in heavy armor, wearing a tabard that bore the symbol of Stormwind. His eyes traveled upward, squinting against the cascade of holy power that radiated from the human form. It was female. Brown hair, invoking the Light. Memories swam in Ma'algos's mind. For months, the demons of the Legion had tortured him until he did not always know what was real, and what was an illusion. The paladin girl's eyes dropped for a moment to meet his. They were blue, and though it was dark, he could see them. He knew them. It was Mariette. Not as the shy and unassuming girl he'd last seen on the Aldor Tier of Shattrath City, but as a woman, a Paladin of the Light. She glowed almost too brightly to look upon, the power pouring off of her, out of her, swirling around her. Perhaps he was dead, perhaps she had died before him, and now came to guide his soul to rest. Rest and peace.
The image of Mariette was wrested from his mind as he felt something curl around his body, felt himself lifted from the ground. Pain brought the world into focus, all too real. He could finally hear her voice as he felt himself lowered into a familiar saddle - that of an elekk armored for war. "Go!" He opened his eyes again to see her. This time, the Light was gone. She was not some angel of retribution glowing with the might of her power. She was again the girl he remembered. Her cheek was bleeding from a cut, she looked exhausted and desperate. She looked like someone who had accepted their own death. The elekk began to move as she directed it away from her. The world slowed for Ma'algos as he saw the Farstrider's arrow slam into the girl, turning her around and laying her prone. He tried to cry out, to make any move to stop the elekk, but he was too weak. He would not allow her to sacrifice herself for him. He had lived a very long life, and was tired. Still, he could not move, and in a matter of moments, the camp and the girl who had saved him was out of sight.
* * *
The Magister stumbled, tearing his robe. He cursed in Thallasian. Mariette understood the language; she had grown up and studied with his people in Stormwind. When they called themselves Quel'dorei, when they were good and pure, when they were not corrupted by the Legion like the wizard before her. The sword was getting heavy in her hand. Her left arm was numb, but she could feel the weight of blood filling the fingers of her gloves, running down from the broken arrow still lodged in her shoulder.
"Keep walking." She nudged him with the tip of her sword. He turned briefly to give the girl a baleful glare. More words tumbled from his lips in his native tongue. Mariette stopped walking, and gazed upon him with pity.
Her tongue was not as skilled with the elven language, but she could speak it clearly enough. "I was not one who betrayed you. You betrayed your own kind, yourself. The Light did not abandon you. My people have done yours wrong, but you allowed that hatred to blind you, to isolate you. Now, keep moving, and keep your tongue still." Her voice hardened with her last phrase. She didn't need more distractions. The world was already swimming around the edges of her vision. She knew she did not have very long before unconsciousness took her. If she drew on the Light to heal herself, the effort might prove her undoing as much as the blood loss. Better she save that effort for an emergency. For now, she could keep moving, but she could not afford to falter. The Magister would kill her, she knew. Time, time had always been against her.
Two figures crested the rise ahead of them. They were mounted. Mariette weaved on her feet as sensations washed over her. One mount bore the colors of the Blood Knights, emanated with the power of the Light. The other was demonic, and the waves of heat seemed to lash at Mariette's skin even from this distance. Sin'dorei, more elves. Her foot scuffed a rock, she nearly fell. The Magister took his opportunity. He turned, his hands weaving in elaborate patterns in the air while arcane words tumbled from his lips. Mariette wasted no time. She lunged forward, bringing her sword tip up just high enough to catch the Magister in the stomach. She screamed, calling on the Light to guide her. As the sword pierced the Magister's robes and then flesh, Light erupted around Mariette and the now-dying elf. It filled him, poured from his eyes and gaping mouth. Just as quickly as it had flared, it died.
The two riders were closing in on her now. The Magister fell to the earth, a lifeless husk, and Mariette fell to one knee, following him. She would not just lie down and die. She pulled her sword free of the corpse before her and held it at the ready with one hand. The sword was too heavy for her to wield with just one hand, and she knew it. As the two came closer, they slowed their mounts to a walk. The Light washed over her from the Blood Knight, an almost comforting feeling, but the heat from the Dreadsteed took her breath away. Cold was creeping into her chest, from her numb arm, and her sword seemed impossibly heavy. She couldn't focus on the two riders, but heard light elven laughter as the world dimmed and went black. She was unconscious before her cheek hit the stony ground.
* * *
Avaryse had her feet on the ground as the paladin's face made contact with the same. "Zzera, help me." The Blood Knight hesitated before dismounting and moving casually to stand next to the warlock who now knelt over the human girl. "Can you stop her bleeding without rousing her?" A thin red brow arched as she looked up to her companion. Zzera drew her sword. "...without killing her." Zzera sighed with a small smirk, and resheathed her sword. A small tendril of Light crawled from where she stood to curl around the unconscious human paladin. "There, she won't bleed for now." Avaryse glanced at the Magister and smiled grimly. "At least she did that favor." The warlock stood, brushing off her hands before pulling a small shimmering crystal from a pouch on her hip. "Zhar'mon, I summon you to do my bidding. Leave your Void, and come. Your price, I gladly pay." Shadows pulled from around them into a hulking form. Avaryse held out the small shard to the creature. It enveloped the pulsing crystal, devouring it into nothingness. "Carry the girl." Then, to her Blood Knight companion who had already remounted, "We'll take her to Shattrath."
Tom Clancy Classics: The Hunt for Red October
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